Clearing Up Misconceptions About the Flu

December 2018

When it comes to the flu, it seems like everyone, from your mailman to your mother-in- law, has some advice about how to prevent and treat it. Although tens of millions of Americans will come down with the flu each year, much of the “common wisdom” shared about the flu isn’t so wise at all. Here are five common myths and misconceptions about the flu—plus a healthy dose of the truth.

  • “Antibiotics will cure the flu.” Too often, as soon as the sniffles hit, someone will suggest you need a prescription for amoxicillin, stat. However, even if you are experiencing aches, chills and a fever, antibiotics won’t help. Influenza is caused by a virus—so antibiotics, which fight bacteria, won’t be effective at all.
  • “You’ll get the flu from the flu shot.” Each year, many people avoid getting their annual flu vaccine because they fear they will get sick. The reality is that the flu vaccine can’t give you the flu, because it incorporates forms of the virus that can’t infect you, such as inactivated or attenuated flu viruses or single genes from the flu virus. All forms trigger the same immune response—helping you to build the antibodies required to fight infection. That said, it is possible to have a mild reaction in response to a flu immunization. Some people report soreness or swelling at the site of the inoculation, while others may experience a low-grade fever, headache or muscle aches. These symptoms generally last for only a day or two.
  • “You can catch the flu from being outside in cold weather.” Despite centuries of Contently 1 grandmothers warning us to wear a warm coat once winter hits, cold weather does not cause the flu. Influenza is caused by exposure to the flu virus—not the cold. So why might flu season run from October to April, then? Scientists aren’t entirely sure, but they hypothesize that it may be due to the fact that we spend more time indoors when temperatures drop, in closer proximity to those who may be carrying the virus.
  • “A few bowls of chicken soup should do it.” While a good bowl of chicken soup may be good for the soul—and may feel good on a sore or phlegmy throat—it does not contain any ingredients that can combat a viral infection.
  • “Once you are vaccinated, you don’t have to worry about catching the flu.” The flu shot is not 100% effective. Each year, scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) select specific strains of the virus they believe will be particularly contagious for a given year. In years where the specific strains in the vaccine don’t match the strains that actually go around, you are still at risk of catching the flu. Even if there is a good match,  the flu vaccine is only about 40-60% effective against the strains it immunizes you against. However, the CDC notes that, even if you do catch a strain you were vaccinated against, the immunity you built from getting vaccinated will  reduce the severity of disease.

While there are a lot of misconceptions about the flu, there are proven, concrete steps you can take to prevent infection. This includes getting the annual flu shot, washing your hands frequently and avoiding contact with people who have come down with the flu.

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