10 Myth-Busting Facts About the Flu
By Anne Devine, MA, BSN
Influenza, or “flu,” can still strike fear in the hearts of public health professionals. Many of us recall reading about the worldwide flu pandemic of 1918 in which one-third of the world’s population was infected and 50 million died. In spite of recent medical advances and public awareness about the disease, the flu claims thousands of lives in the U.S. every year (the majority in those 65+ years of age), and can cause serious complications resulting in hospitalization and even death.
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Despite public health campaigns urging simple health precautions (like handwashing) and flu vaccination, many myths persist even among the most enlightened of us. As nurses, we can expect our patients, coworkers, family, and friends to turn to us for advice about flu protection and recovery. It’s also essential that we know how to best protect ourselves, as we are in regular contact with vulnerable people – our patients.
Myth #1: People who get a flu shot are safe for the season.
Not necessarily so. Even if you wisely decide to be vaccinated against the flu, you may still succumb to it. There are many strains of influenza, and each year, although scientists make their best educated estimate as to which strains are most likely to occur, they are not always on point. Also, flu viruses continually change over time, which makes it even more difficult to develop a fail-safe vaccine. Even if you have some residual antibodies from last year’s flu, they may have grown weak or be ineffective against this year’s strain. Vaccination is one of your best steps to staying healthy this season.
Myth #2: The flu is just a bad cold.
Not true. Colds and flu are both viral infections of the respiratory tract, and may have some symptoms in common, such as runny nose, chest congestion, sore throat, and cough. However, flu is more serious and likely to be accompanied by fever, muscle aches, fatigue, headache, chills, and weakness. It is also more likely to cause serious complications, such as pneumonia, hospitalization, and even death.
Flu is especially concerning in vulnerable populations including children, the elderly, and those with chronic illnesses like asthma, heart disease, and diabetes. People who are immunosuppressed by chemotherapy or other treatments are also especially susceptible and more likely to develop serious complications.
Myth #3: Starve a fever; feed a cold.
This old wives’ tale is not true. How much you eat has little to do with recovery from either a cold or the flu, although good nutrition is important to overall health. However, increasing fluid intake is important to any recovery plan for both cold and flu.
Myth #4: The flu vaccine can cause the flu.
Flu shots do not cause the illness because they are made of inactivated (attenuated) viruses. If you catch the flu after being vaccinated, you were exposed to a virus that was not included in this year’s vaccine. Or it may be that you were exposed before receiving the vaccine – it takes up to two weeks after the shot to be fully protected.
Myth #5: You don’t need a flu vaccine every year.
Not true. The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months of age and older receive a flu vaccine every year, even when scientists determine that flu strains haven’t changed from the previous year. This is because immune protection declines over time. Get optimal flu protection with vaccination every year. Additional preventive actions against the flu are frequent handwashing; not touching your face, eyes, and month; and avoiding exposure to others who may have the flu.
Myth #6: You shouldn’t get the flu shot if it makes you feel “sick” afterwards.
Some people report not feeling well after getting a flu vaccine. Unless you have an allergic reaction to a component in the vaccine or have other contraindications which can be serious or life-threatening, most symptoms are mild; these may include low-grade fever, soreness or inflammation at the injection site, and aches. Most reactions last only 1-2 days and are less severe than those experienced with the actual illness.
Myth #7: Healthy people don’t need to be vaccinated.
Yes they do. Even though flu can be more serious among the very young, older adults, and those living with chronic or serious illness, anyone is susceptible. Also, vaccination is recommended for people routinely exposed to at-risk populations, and healthcare workers are included in this group.
Myth #8: Antibiotics are effective against the flu.
Not true. Antibiotics are effective against bacterial infections, and flu is a viral infection. In appropriate situations, antiviral medications are prescribed for the flu (see Myth #10). A complication of flu is pneumonia, however, and when it occurs, antibiotics may be prescribed to treat it.
Myth #9: Pregnant women should not get a flu shot.
Not true. Vaccination has been determined to be safe and effective for pregnant women through many years of clinical use and research supporting its safety. Pregnant women may experience the same mild side effects as those experienced by others. A thimerosol-free version of the flu vaccine is available should a woman wish to have a preservative-free dose of the vaccine.
Myth #10: When you get the flu, you just have to ride it out. There isn’t any treatment.
Thankfully, not true. There are antiviral medications available by prescription that can help you recover from the flu. The CDC recommends the following drugs this season (2016 – 2017):
- oseltamivir (available as a generic version or under the trade name Tamiflu®)
- zanamivir (trade name Relenza®)
- peramivir (trade name Rapivab®)
Antiviral medications reduce flu symptoms and also shorten sick time by one or two days. They also can prevent serious flu complications, including pneumonia.
Anne Devine, MA, BSN, is a freelance healthcare writer who lives in Seattle, Washington. She has more than 15 years of experience working with employers and clients in the academic, nonprofit, healthcare, and corporate worlds, including a medical device company, online pharmacy, and a variety of startup and software/in-the- cloud firms. With roots in public health nursing, she especially enjoys working with and writing for healthcare organizations and the professionals who keep them going.
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
1918 Influenza: The Mother of All Pandemics
Flu Vaccine Safety and Pregnancy
Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR)
U.S. Food and Drug Administration
Thimerosol in Vaccines