With the World Health Organization’s decision to raise the swine flu pandemic alert level from phase 4 (sustained human-to-human transmission) to phase 5 (widespread human infection), many people are scared. What exactly is swine flu, and how can we protect ourselves?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), swine flu is a virus that causes respiratory inflammation and disease. It is common among pigs. Though humans are generally not susceptible to it, a particular strain of the virus, influenza type A/H1N1, can be transmitted from pigs to humans. It is believed to spread from person to person through coughs and sneezes.

Those with swine flu may experience a fever, body aches, sore throat, fatigue, chills, headache and coughing—in other words, symptoms similar to those of the seasonal flu. But these simple tips can help you avoid getting sick and infecting others:

  • Cover your mouth when you cough and sneeze.
  • Wash your hands often using soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub, especially after coughing, sneezing or using a tissue.
  • If you have symptoms, doctors recommend that you stay home from school and/or work seven days after the start of the illness and your fever is gone. In addition, avoid close contact with others and visit your health care provider in case you need to take antiviral medications.

For more information, call the CDC hotline at 1.800.CDC.INFO (1.800.232.4636).