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What to Expect From H1N1 Swine Flu Testing

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Updated October 16, 2009

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Many people who develop flu symptoms wonder if they need testing for H1N1 swine flu. Whether or not you will actually be tested for H1N1 swine flu depends on your situation and where you are diagnosed.

H1N1 Swine Flu Tests

Rapid Flu Test

The rapid flu test can be performed in many doctor’s offices, urgent care clinics and hospitals and provide results within about 30 minutes. These tests are performed by swiping the inside of the nose or back of the throat with a simple nasal swab (which looks like a long q-tip)or by a process called a nasal wash (where a small amount of fluid is squirted into the nose and then suctioned back out). There are multiple rapid flu tests available that can test for influenza subtypes A and B but they are not specific for H1N1 swine flu. They also vary widely in how accurate they are to detect the flu at all, although they seem to be slightly more accurate in children than adults. Depending on the test, they vary from 10% to 70% in their ability to detect the virus. This means that you could have a rapid flu test done which comes back negative, yet still have the flu.

For most people who develop flu symptoms, testing is not performed and is not necessary, because it does not change how you are treated and the CDC is no longer tracking all cases of H1N1 swine flu. At this time, recommendations for health-care providers include testing those who are hospitalized and people who are at high risk for complications from the virus, including pregnant women and those who have compromised immune systems.

Those who are not at high risk for complications from H1N1 swine flu and are not sick enough to be hospitalized likely do not need any treatment other than rest, fluids and over the counter flu medications. Some health-care providers may prescribe antiviral medications, but most will only do so for people in high risk categories or those who are very sick.

Specific H1N1 Swine Flu Test

Two tests that can definitively diagnose the pandemic H1N1 virus include the real-time reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (rRT-PCR) and a viral culture. These tests can only be performed as certain specialized laboratories and takes several days to receive results. For the 2009-10 flu season, the CDC is only performing these tests on people who are hospitalized.

Is H1N1 Swine Flu Testing Really Necessary?

For most people, testing is not necessary. H1N1 swine flu can be diagnosed based on symptoms instead of test results because the treatment will typically be the same regardless of the test results. This means that many people will have H1N1 swine flu without ever receiving definitive confirmation.

Sources:

”Q&A: Influenza Diagnostic Testing During the 2009-2010 Flu Season.” H1N1 Flu 29 Sep 09. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 13 Oct 09.

”Interim Recommendations for Clinical Use of Influenza Diagnostic Tests During the 2009-10 Influenza Season” H1N1 Flu 29 Sep 09. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 13 Oct 09.

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