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Flu Myths

Friday, February 10, 2017

Flu season is in full swing.  According to the  CDC "FluView" report for the week ending January 28, 2017, flu activity continues to increase and is widespread in most of the United States.  The proportion of people seeing their health care provider for influenza-like-illness (ILI) has been at or above the national baseline for seven consecutive weeks so far this season. New York state currently has a high level of ILIs.   Despite the efforts of physicians, the CDC, and departments of health, there continue to be a number of myths surrounding the flu.  Knowing the truth about the flu, its prevention, and treatment may help you and your loved ones weather this yearly influx of illness better.

Harvard Health Publications, the Mayo Clinic, and the CDC help debunk the myths with the following information:

MYTH: You can catch the flu from the vaccine. The vaccine is made from an inactivated virus that can't transmit infection. So people who get sick after receiving a flu vaccination were going to get sick anyway. It takes a week or two to get protection from the vaccine. But people assume that because they got sick after getting the vaccine, the shot caused their illness.   CDC recommends annual flu vaccination for everyone 6 months of age and older. While it is best to get the flu shot by the end of October, anyone who has not gotten vaccinated yet this season should get vaccinated now.  It is not too late.

MYTH: Healthy people don't need to be vaccinated. It's true that the flu vaccination is routinely recommended for people who are at risk such as:  Children younger than 5, but especially children younger than 2 years old;  Adults 65 years of age and older;  Pregnant women (and women up to two weeks postpartum);  Residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities;  and American Indians and Alaskan Natives. But anyone — even healthy folks — can benefit from being vaccinated.  Speak with your physician about what is best for you.

MYTH: Getting the flu vaccination is all you need to do to protect yourself from the flu. There are a number of steps you can take to protect yourself during flu season besides vaccination. Avoid contact with people who have the flu, wash your hands frequently, and consider taking anti-viral medications if you were exposed to the flu before being vaccinated.

MYTH: The flu is just a bad cold. According to the CDC, the flu and the common cold are both respiratory illnesses but they are caused by different viruses. Because these two types of illnesses have similar symptoms, it can be difficult to differentiate.  In general, the flu is worse than the common cold. People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose. The symptoms of flu can include fever or feeling feverish/chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue (tiredness).  Colds generally do not result in serious health problems while the flu can lead to complications such as pneumonia, bacterial infections, or hospitalizations. A simple test at the doctor's office is the only way to know for sure if it is the flu or some other virus.  

MYTH: You can't spread the flu if you're feeling well. Actually, 20% to 30% of people carrying the influenza virus have no symptoms.

MYTH: You don't need to get a flu shot every year. The influenza virus changes (mutates) each year. So getting vaccinated each year is important to make sure you have immunity to the strains most likely to cause an outbreak.

MYTH: You can catch the flu from going out in cold weather without a coat, with wet hair or by sitting near a drafty window. While it is not a good idea to go outside without proper winter clothing, that alone will not give you the flu. The only way to catch the flu is by being exposed to the influenza virus. Flu season coincides with the cold weather, so people often associate the flu with getting chilled.

MYTH: Feed a cold, starve a fever. If you have the flu (or a cold) and a fever, you need more fluids. There's little reason to increase or decrease how much you eat. You might not be very hungry if you are ill, but there is no reason to starve yourself.  In addition, good nutrition will help you recover.

MYTH: Chicken soup will speed your recovery from the flu.

This is one of those yes and no type answers.  Chicken soup alone does not have any specific qualities that cure the flu or the common cold.  However, the Mayo Clinic states that warm liquids, such as chicken soup, tea or warm apple juice, help speed up the movement of mucus through the nose. This relieves congestion and limits the amount of time viruses are in contact with the lining of your nose. Plus, soup and other liquids help prevent dehydration.

MYTH: If you have a high fever with the flu that lasts more than a day or two, antibiotics may be necessary. Antibiotics work well against bacteria, but they aren't effective for a viral infection like the flu. That being said, some people develop a bacterial infection as a complication of the flu.  Typically, the flu can lasts for one to two weeks.  The most severe symptoms usually subside in two to three days with lingering effects such as weakness, fatigue, and a cough lasting for seven days or more.  If your symptoms drag on or worsen, make an appointment with your physician to determine if antibiotics are necessary.

Lorraine Wichtowski is a community health educator at URMC Noyes Health in Dansville, NY.  For more information or article suggestions, contact Lorraine at or 585-335-4327.  

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