What are the Different Methods of Testing for Swine Flu?

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  • Written By: Anna T.
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 03 October 2019
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Testing for swine flu involves the use of a specialized laboratory test, commonly referred to as the PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, test. This test generally require several days to one week before results are determined. Most doctors reserve the use of the PCR test for pregnant women, people who have been hospitalized with the flu, or people who have compromised immune systems and are at increased risk for serious flu complications. The PCR test is the only kind of flu test that can diagnose swine flu specifically, and it is done by comparing samples of DNA taken from a flu-infected person to the genetic makeup of the swine flu virus. The majority of people who are suspected to have swine flu do not receive this test and instead may be diagnosed either based on their symptoms or through a rapid influenza diagnostic test.


The rapid flu diagnostic test is the flu test most doctors use. It cannot always differentiate between specific flu strains, and it is not used in testing for swine flu, but it can often positively detect the presence of the influenza virus approximately 10 to 70 percent of the time. The test is usually performed using a swab that is inserted inside the nose or into the mouth to get a sample from the nasal passage or from the back of the throat. After the sample is retrieved, doctors can test it in a lab and have the results back usually within 30 minutes. If the results are positive, doctors normally prescribe antiviral medication and send their patients home with instruction to get lots of rest and to drink plenty of fluids.

Even though the rapid flu diagnostic test cannot determine the presence of swine flu precisely, as of 2011 doctors still often assume that their patients have swine flu if the results of this test come back positive. The reason for this is because the swine flu pandemic, which began in 2009, has been so widespread that doctors conclude the majority of people probably have the swine flu if they are diagnosed with influenza. The treatment for swine flu and other types of influenza are generally the same, and for this reason doctors normally do not concern themselves with testing for swine flu specifically in most people if they are otherwise healthy.

Some doctors do not bother with testing for swine flu or other types of flu, and may instead diagnose swine flu based on their patient's symptoms. The reason for this is probably because of how widespread swine flu has been since it became a concern in 2009. Instead of bothering with the PCR test or with the rapid flu diagnostic test, many doctors ask their patients about their symptoms and diagnose them with swine flu if the symptoms seem to match up with the illness. All types of flu, including swine flu, generally have to run their course, and doctors normally prescribe antiviral medicine to their patients to help speed up recovery time.


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Post 3

@ddljohn-- In 2010, about one in five people had swine flu. Considering that incidence rate, it would have been a waste of resources to test every single person who walked through the door. And the death rate was very low, only .02%.

Post 2

@ddljohn-- I see what you're saying but really, it doesn't matter what type of flu it is, the treatment is the same. So whether someone has swine flu or another type of flu, they're still going to be given antivirals, fever reducers and sent home to rest.

Plus, by the time the results for more specialized tests like PCR come back, the patient will probably be mostly over their symptoms. And of the 144 types of flu strains, I'm quite sure that most of those affect only animals, not people. There aren't that many flu strains out there that humans can be infected with.

So I don't see any problem with doctors making an educated guess about a patient having swine flu. As long as the patient is treated properly and there are no complications, it's fine.

Post 1

It doesn't make sense to me why doctors would automatically assume that someone has swine flu if the rapid flu diagnostic test comes back positive. As far as I know, there are around 144 types of flu strains out there with new variations occurring all the time. Other types of flu, like Avian flu are also becoming common. It's probably not wise to assume that everyone with flu has swine flu. Seasonal flu is also very common and not running further tests on the virus may cause doctors to miss new strains.

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