8 Flu Myths: How to Minimize Your Risk
In early March 1918, an Army mess cook reported to the infirmary in Fort Riley, Kansas, complaining of a headache and fever. About a week later, hundreds more soldiers joined his march to a sickbed. By year’s end, the terror that became known as the Spanish flu had circled the globe. Before it subsided, this strain of the influenza virus claimed the lives of at least 20 million people and perhaps as many as 50 million.
Many terrifying diseases of the early 20th century have been relegated to the dustbin of history, but the influenza virus continues to attack ferociously. Every year, 36,000 people in the U.S. die from some form of the flu. About 200,000 are hospitalized. Nearly 100 years after the Spanish flu epidemic, myths about the flu persist.
Want to learn what’s true, what’s not and what can you do to limit your risk of contracting the flu? Read on to find out the greatest flu myths out there.
#1: The flu is just a fever and some aches and pains. It’s not that dangerous.
The flu is a systemic illness affecting the whole body, says Dr. Vanessa Robinson, a geriatrician (a doctor who treats the elderly) with Henry Ford Health System in Detroit. It can develop quickly, and its symptoms include fever, headache, muscle aches and back and joint pain that lasts up to 10 days.
While the flu itself can be deadly, some people – the very young, the elderly or those with chronic diseases – are more at risk of both the flu and secondary infections, says Dr. Robinson. Although the flu vaccine is important for everyone, people older than 65, children and anyone with a chronic condition, such as diabetes or heart or lung disease, should never skip immunization. The flu shot is just as critical for anyone who might come into contact with those at-risk populations, such as day care or nursing home employees.
#2: If I get the flu, I can just go to the doctor and get some medicine.
The flu is caused by an ever-evolving family of viruses, and unlike bacterial infections, viruses are not treatable with antibiotics or over-the-counter medicines.
#3: I never get sick, so I don’t need the vaccine.
Unfortunately, the flu doesn’t discriminate. It attacks the healthy and the less-healthy equally. This is an immune system myth along with a flu myth. “I hear, ‘I never get a cold, I’m not around a lot of people, so I don’t need it,’ ” says Dr. Robinson. “Trust me: You really don’t want the flu.” Dr. Robinson also has patients, some of them elderly, who simply don’t believe in immunizations. “It’s the whole idea of introducing something foreign into the body,” she says. “But we’re exposed to foreign substances all the time.”
#4: Because labs change it every year, the vaccine doesn’t work.
The vaccine does work if you get the flu strain that’s included in it. The current year’s vaccine includes strains of the disease from the previous flu season, but that immunization doesn’t protect against all viruses because not all have been identified. “It’s possible that you will get flu, but you’ll get it from a virus that the vaccine didn’t protect against,” says Dr. Robinson.
#5: If you don’t like shots, it’s fine to get the nasal spray vaccine.
Adults should always get the shot and never the mist, says Dr. Robinson. In addition, people age 65 and older should ask about the HD65, a special vaccination just for older adults. “As we get older, our immune system is not as strong,” says Dr. Robinson. “This is a high dose just for seniors, with four times as much active ingredient as the regular flu shot to provide better immune response.” If you are wondering: is the flu vaccine effective? The answer is a resounding Yes!
#6: The flu vaccine can give you the flu, so you are better off skipping it.
“I hear this all the time with patients: ‘I took it and got the flu, or a relative did and got the flu,’ ” says Dr. Robinson. “That’s because the vaccine is not – and cannot – be 100 percent protective against every virus that causes flu.”
Every virus on the planet possesses the unique ability to infect a cell and then change that cell’s structure, so designing a vaccine is difficult, no matter the disease. The flu is particularly tricky: It isn’t caused by just one virus but by many, all of which can change rapidly.
If you get the vaccine and a day or two later get a low-grade fever or other symptoms, there are several reasons why. It takes about 10 days for immunity to the flu to build up, so you may have already been exposed to the flu virus before your immunization. And those symptoms, suggestive of flu, may simply be your body’s process of building up its immunity.
#7: I’m going to wait as long as possible to get the vaccine.
Don’t, says Dr. Robinson. She advises her patients to get the vaccine as soon as it comes out to ensure protection throughout flu season, roughly October to April. But if you forget to get vaccinated early, it is still worthwhile to get the shot later on. “The flu can lead to hospitalization and can cause death, so don’t miss the opportunity to get a vaccine that’s preventative.”
#8: I’ll either get the flu or I won’t; the vaccine doesn’t matter.
The vaccine does matter, of course, but so does being proactive about your health, says Dr. Robinson. In addition to the flu shot, you can boost your immune system by eating well, exercising, getting plenty of rest and washing your hands frequently. “You don’t want to wait until the flu catches up with you,” she says.
Think you've got the flu? Visit the doctor in your PJs with HAP's telehealth services.
HAP partners with American Well® to provide members with telehealth – round-the-clock access to live, online visits with licensed, board-certified doctors. Use your mobile phone, tablet or computer for your visit.* To sign up you’ll need a special code. You can find your code by logging in to hap.org and clicking "Telehealth Services" from the Quick Links menu. Desktop users can visit hap.amwell.com and enter your code. Mobile users should download the Amwell app from iTunes or Google Play, and enter your information and the code to get started.
Want to know more about the flu, flu myths, and where to get a flu shot covered by HAP?Check out our related post: All About Flu Shots: Myths, Facts and Why You Should Get One.