Even though health experts are cautiously optimistic that the international panic over swine flu appears to be on the verge of abating, sending the bug slithering into ailment oblivion, my H1N1 alarm clock has just started ringing. I think there’s an outside chance I’m one of the few hundred people harboring a case of the disease du jour.

After returning from a short trip back east two weeks ago, I came down with a stuffy nose, sore throat and cough that has stubbornly and suspiciously persisted long past most of my standard annual abstract sniffles and viruses. Still, I didn’t think much of it until last Thursday when I was preparing to get on a plane again at the same time the news hit that at the bottom of the ninth, the swine flu was up at bat with bases loaded, threatening to dethrone SARS as the home run disease du decade.

As my cough echoed through the house while I was packing for my trip, I thought about how a few days earlier I had been drinking margaritas with a friend who was in close contact with another friend who had just returned from a Mexican vacation with a cough. And that was the day after my husband and I went to a Mexican restaurant for lunch.

I immediately concluded I was destined for an indefinite membership in the Quarantine Club, so I called the doctor’s office and described my symptoms to the receptionist. She put me on with someone else (hopefully and presumably with some sort of medical degree) who diagnosed me as having allergies, but said it couldn’t hurt if I armed myself with a face mask for the flight.

Clearly she hadn’t read how face masks are generally believed to be ineffective in guarding against swine flu. Nevertheless, I sent my husband on a Holy Grail-like search for one. Since the local pharmacy was fresh out, he went to the hospital. He was bounced around a bit before being sent to the cafeteria, where the lunch lady gave him a few. A face mask might not ward off swine flu, but at least I was certain not to inadvertently spit in anyone’s food.

And so with all apologies and due respect to Joe Biden, I woke up last Friday ready to be voluntarily sealed in a giant piece of winged Tupperware with 150 people for a three-and-a-half-hour journey. However, when I got to the airport I learned my flight was delayed for several hours, giving me ample time to study thousands of other coughing and sneezing travelers in detail (thereby ensuring if I didn’t have swine flu before, I would certainly leave with a parting gift).

I sat down in an empty boarding area to read, figuring it was safest to be as far from other people as possible. However, it turns out it was actually the eventual boarding area for a flight to Cancun. So I wandered down to my gate, which was right next to the gate for a flight to Los Cabos.

When it was finally time to leave the future infirmary for everyone voluntarily heading south of the border, I was relieved to be in the front row of the plane so I didn’t have to worry about swine particles floating backward (just frontward). Thankfully the 3-year-old sitting next to me seemed to be in good health. Hopefully the boogers she smeared on our shared armrest weren’t infected with anything other than grossness.

This hasn’t been my first brush with a trendy yet deadly affliction. In 2001, I was away for a weekend in the country with my parents and my sister and her family when we took my then 21-month-old nephew on a horse-drawn carriage ride.

As we sat snugly under some blankets as the horse set off, my chest tightened and I started wheezing. My thoughts immediately went to the anthrax attacks that were currently gripping the nation with fear and how I worked at NBC, where a news assistant had just opened a letter containing anthrax powder. And how I lived down the street from ABC, where another news assistant received a similar envelope. I was sure my work and home mail had mingled with the infected mail and I was a goner.

My breath became more labored as I quietly debated how to break the news to my family that anthrax was about to claim another victim. Then my mother interrupted my silent funeral planning by asking if I had ever outgrown my allergy to horses.

While I’ll wait a few more days before declaring victory over swine flu, I think I might have cheated death for the second time. Now if there was only a vaccine for allergies.

E-mail questions or comments to meredithccarroll@hotmail.com.