Each year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that between three and 11 percent of Americans get sick from the flu. Some people only experience mild symptoms, but many others develop complications of the flu, some of which can be deadly. Because influenza is so widespread and manifests differently in different people, myths about the flu abound. Is what you hear true, or is there too much misinformation floating around? Debunk the seven most common myths about influenza.
Myths About the Flu
- “Getting Vaccinated Can Give You the Flu”
According to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, there is no way the vaccine can make you sick. Vaccines only contain a weakened or inactivated form of the influenza virus, which cannot infect you. The truth is that people often mistake the side effects of the vaccine for the illness itself. Side effects of inoculation may feel like mild symptoms of the flu, but soreness around the injection site is typically the only symptom people experience. Keep in mind that flu season (which generally lasts from October to March) coincides with a time of year when germs that cause colds and other respiratory illnesses are in the air. It is possible to get the vaccine and then get sick with a completely unrelated cold virus within a few days.
- “There Is No Treatment for the Flu”
There are four FDA-approved antiviral drugs that are highly effective against the flu. Tamiflu (oseltamivir) is available in pill and liquid form, Relenza (zanamivir) comes in powder form, which is inhaled, Rapivab (peramivir) is administered intravenously, and Xofluza (baloxavir marboxil) is available in pill form. While these antiviral medications do not cure the viral infection, they can minimize symptoms, reduce the amount of time you are sick by one or two days, and make you less contagious to others. Furthermore, early treatment can prevent complications of the flu, like pneumonia, which can be especially dangerous for older adults. It’s best to take these drugs within 48 hours of getting sick, so do not hesitate to make a doctor’s appointment if you or a loved one have symptoms of the flu.
- “Antibiotics Can Fight the Flu”
Antibiotics only fight bacterial infections. Since influenza is a virus, antibiotics have no effect. Furthermore, overuse and misuse of antibiotics can result in reduced effectiveness against the bacteria they are actually intended to kill and even cause “superbugs” that are entirely resistant to these treatments.
- “You Can’t Get the Flu More Than Once During Flu Season”
You can certainly contract the flu more than once a year because there are many different strains of the influenza virus. There are two main types of flu, Type A and Type B, and there are also many different subtypes of each. It is possible that you could get infected with one strain and then another during a given season, especially if you haven’t been vaccinated and/or have a compromised immune system.
- “If You’re Young and Healthy, You Don’t Need to Get the Flu Vaccine”
The CDC recommends that everyone over 6 months of age get vaccinated each season. Healthy adults are just as susceptible to the virus as other demographics, and vaccination is the best way to prevent the flu. If you are caring for an aging loved one, simply getting them vaccinated only provides some protection. You and other family members should also get the vaccine to avoid endangering their health and the health of other vulnerable individuals.
- “Cold Weather Causes the Flu”
The influenza virus actually circulates and infects people year-round. Contrary to popular belief, going outside during winter without bundling up does not directly increase your risk of getting sick. Influenza peaks in fall and winter for a few different reasons. Scientists speculate that the flu virus thrives in cooler, low-humidity environments. Of course, during the colder months, people tend to spend more time cooped up indoors, making it easier for the virus to spread from person to person. Furthermore, less time spent outside means that most people experience drops in vitamin D production during winter that can weaken the immune system. All these factors contribute to the timing of flu season, which is the same throughout the whole country, even in warmer states like Florida.
- “If You Haven’t Gotten a Flu Shot by November, It’s Too Late”
Flu season often peaks between December and February, but the timing can vary. Some years heightened flu activity has lasted until May. No matter how late it is, if you have not been vaccinated yet, go get it done. You could spare yourself and your family a great deal of misery.
The Facts: How to Prevent Seasonal Flu
Influenza spreads from person to person, often through droplets in the air, and you can pass on the infection even before you begin feeling symptoms. An infected individual is also contagious for several days after the onset of symptoms. Infection can stem from a contagious person near you coughing, sneezing or talking, or even from touching a surface that the virus is on, like a telephone or doorknob, and then touching your mouth or nose.
To avoid contracting and spreading the virus, use the following tips:
- Clean your hands regularly with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. This is especially important after you touch a sick person, common surfaces, used tissues or dirty laundry.
- Individuals with the flu should cover their mouths and noses with a tissue when coughing and sneezing to avoid spreading the virus to others.
- Immediately throw away tissues and other disposable items used by an infected person.
- Once diagnosed, talk to a healthcare provider about taking antiviral medication to prevent the virus from spreading to other family members, coworkers or friends.
- Keep high-traffic surfaces like bedside tables, bathroom surfaces, doorknobs and children’s toys clean by regularly wiping them down with a household disinfectant.
- Do not share eating utensils, dishes or cups with a sick person. These items do not need to be cleaned separately, but they should not be shared without washing thoroughly first.
- Wash linens (such as bed sheets and towels) by using household laundry detergent and tumble dry on a hot setting. Use a basket to transport laundry prior to washing to prevent contaminating yourself.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth to minimize the likelihood of contracting the flu and other viral infections.
Sources: Key Facts About Influenza (Flu) (https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/keyfacts.htm ); Can A Flu Vaccine Give You The Flu? (https://www.nfid.org/2015/12/07/can-a-flu-vaccine-give-you-the-flu/); The Flu Season (https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/season/flu-season.htm); What You Should Know About Flu Antiviral Drugs (https://www.cdc.gov/flu/treatment/whatyoushould.htm); Types of Influenza Viruses (https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/viruses/types.htm); Who Needs a Flu Vaccine and When (https://www.cdc.gov/flu/prevent/vaccinations.htm); FYI: Why Is There A Winter Flu Season? (https://www.popsci.com/science/article/2013-01/fyi-why-winter-flu-season/); Preventive Steps (https://www.cdc.gov/flu/prevent/prevention.htm)