In the United States, more than 200,000 people each year are hospitalized because of the flu, and around 36,000 people a year die from the flu. Every year, many myths about the influenza virus circulate. With flu season now in full swing, it is important that you take steps to better protect yourself and your loved ones from the flu. You need to know what the most common flu symptoms are and what groups of people are at the most risk for complications from the flu. You also need to know which flu rumors are absolutely myths.
Common Flu Symptoms
- High fever
- Sore throat
- Runny/stuffy nose
- Muscle and/or body aches
- Fatigue, lethargy in young children
- Vomiting and diarrhea (more common in children)
People at Risk for Flu Complications
- Children younger than age 5
- Adults ages 65 and older
- Pregnant women and women up to two weeks post-partum
- Residents of long-term care facilities
- American Indians and Alaskan Natives
- People with certain medical conditions
Myth 1: The Flu Shot Can Give You the Flu
Fact: You cannot catch the flu from the influenza vaccine.
There are two types of flu vaccines: the shot and the nasal spray, FluMist. The shot contains an inactive, or dead, virus which cannot make you sick. The nasal spray is known as a live vaccine, and while that means it contains a live version of the virus, the virus is a weakened version that will not make you sick. FluMist is not recommended for anyone under the age of two or over the age of 49. While the vaccine can cause mild side-effects, like soreness, redness, or swelling where the shot was given, headache, fever, nausea, muscle aches, and fainting, these symptoms usually only last a day to a few days after receiving the vaccine.
The influenza virus mutates every year, so scientists look at previous flu strains, seasonal changes, and viral patterns in order to develop a new vaccine yearly. Because the flu is not always predictable, it is possible that you will catch the flu even after getting the vaccine. If this happens, you did not catch the flu from the vaccine, you caught the flu because that year’s vaccine was ineffective against the virus.
Myth 2: You Don't Need the Flu Vaccine Every Year
Fact: You need to get the flu vaccine every year, because the flu virus mutates every year.
The flu virus mutates and changes every year. There are also several different strains of influenza that are passed around from person to person each year. Because the flu is ever-changing, the vaccine that is offered to fight the flu is updated each year. Although the flu vaccine is not always effective against the flu, getting your flu shot every year is the best way you can protect yourself and the people around you from the flu. The flu vaccine is designed to make sure that everyone who gets it has immunity to several strains of the flu in order to hopefully avoid a flu outbreak.
Myth 3: Healthy People Don't Need to Be Vaccinated
Fact: It is recommended that everyone over the age of six months gets their flu vaccine yearly, especially young children, pregnant women, people over age 49, healthcare workers, and people who are or will be around someone with a compromised immune system.
Even if you are not one of the groups of people who needs the vaccine the most, you need to get your flu vaccine every year to help protect those more vulnerable groups of people. Getting your flu vaccine every year will help ensure “herd immunity”. What is herd immunity? “When a critical portion of a community is immunized against a contagious disease, most members of the community are protected against that disease because there is little opportunity for an outbreak. Even those who are not eligible for certain vaccines… get some protection because the spread of contagious disease is contained.” This is also referred to as “community immunity”.
Myth 4: The Flu Vaccine Is All You Need to Protect You from the Flu
Fact: There are several things you can do to help protect you from the flu virus, even though getting the flu vaccine is the most important preventative step.
Getting the flu vaccine every year will always improve your probability of staying flu-free. However, the flu vaccine is not always 100% effective at preventing the disease. Some years, it does not protect against the newly mutated strains of flu at all, and other years, it only helps to lessen some of the worst flu symptoms but does not prevent people from catching the virus.
Staying healthy means getting your flu vaccine and doing other little things to help protect yourself as well. The flu virus is spread through the air via excretions from an infected person’s cough or sneeze. It can spread from one person to another from six feet away, so stay away from people who have the flu. Wash your hands regularly and often. Soap and water is the best way to keep your hands clean, but carry a hand sanitizer with you that contains alcohol and use it when a sink is not nearby. Try to avoid touching your face with your hands, as the flu virus enters through the nose or the throat. Use disinfectants to clean door handles, car steering wheels, counter tops, and any other areas that are touched often by multiple people, because the flu can live on hard surfaces for 24-48 hours.
Myth 5: You Can Catch the Flu from Going out in Cold Weather
Fact: You can only catch the flu if you come into contact with the flu virus via an infected person or a surface that they have transferred the virus to by touching.
Because flu season reaches its peak in the colder months, many people often associate the flu with the cold air. You cannot catch the flu from winter weather, from a drafty house, or from walking outside in the cold with your hair wet. These are all old wives’ tales. If you catch the flu after being exposed to the cold air, it is only a coincidence, and since the flu virus thrives in the cold air, it is a very common coincidence. Some science suggests that exposure to the cold air can suppress the immune system, so if you have already been infected by the flu virus but you aren’t yet aware, going out into the cold may speed up the virus’ attack on your body.
Myth 6: Antibiotics Can Cure the Flu
Fact: The flu is a virus, and viruses cannot be cured with antibiotics.
Antibiotics are used to fight off bacteria. Viruses are not bacteria. They are built differently and they replicate differently. There are medicines that you can take that will help to lessen your viral symptoms, but when it comes to a virus, all you can do is ride it out.
Treatments that can help ease your flu symptoms include Tamiflu, over-the-counter fever and pain reducers, plenty of fluids and rest, and sometimes a hospital stay. Tamiflu is used to block the actions of several of the influenza viruses. It is taken for up to six weeks, and it can be given to a person ages two weeks and older who has been suffering from the flu for no more than two days. Because there are questions about its effectiveness, not all doctors will prescribe Tamiflu to help treat flu symptoms. You should always check with your doctor before taking anything for your flu symptoms.