5 Myths About the Flu

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Nearly everyone knows something about the flu–but not everyone knows the whole truth about the flu.

Influenza, commonly known as “the flu,” is a respiratory viral illness that can cause sickness and death. It’s extremely common in the United States in fall and winter, yet it’s also commonly misunderstood. Here are the facts behind five common (and persistent!) myths about the flu.

Myth #1: You can get flu from the flu shot.

It’s impossible to get the flu from a flu vaccination.

Flu vaccines work because they expose your body to a small amount of the flu virus. This exposure allows your body to produce antibodies that your body will use to fight off future flu infections. (Think of vaccination as a sneak peak at an enemy army. Vaccination allows your body to “see” the enemy’s weapons in advance and prepare a proper counterattack.)

You can’t get the flu from a flu shot because the shot contains only inactivated, or dead, flu viruses. You can’t get the flu from the nasal spray flu vaccine either because the nasal spray only contains weakened flu viruses incapable of causing flu infection in the body.

Myth #2: Antibiotics fight the flu.

The flu is caused by the influenza virus. Antibiotics are only effective against bacteria, so taking an antibiotic won’t help at all if you have the flu.

Antiviral medication–medication that fights viruses–can be used to prevent and treat the flu. If you know you’ve been exposed to the flu, talk to your healthcare provider. Taking antiviral medication may prevent you from getting the flu too.

If you have flu symptoms, taking antiviral medication may shorten the duration of your illness or make it less severe. The hitch: you have to start the medication within the first few days of your illness. Antiviral medication works best when started within the first two days of getting sick.

Myth #3: The flu is like a bad cold.

Influenza is actually the eighth leading cause of death in the United States. According to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, an average of 36,000 Americans die from the flu each year. More than 200,000 Americans are hospitalized due to influenza annually.

Young children, the elderly and people with pre-existing health conditions, such as asthma, heart disease and diabetes, are most likely to develop serious and severe cases of the flu. But even in young and otherwise healthy adults, a flu infection is much more than a bad cold. People who get the flu report feeling like they “got hit with a truck,” and the description is apt. While a bad cold might inconvenience you for a few days, the flu lands you flat on your back, metaphorically-speaking. Most people with bad colds continue to function. Most people with the flu end up confined to the couch or bed for a few days with high fevers, body aches and a cough, and most report lingering weakness for weeks afterward.

Myth #4: The flu vaccine isn’t very effective.

No vaccine is 100 percent effective. It’s particularly challenging to build an effective flu vaccine because there are a variety of different types of the flu. Each year, researchers work to determine which types of flu are most likely to cause flu infections, and then create a vaccine that provides protection against those strains of flu. The problem is that it’s impossible to completely accurately predict which viruses will be most active.

However, the flu vaccine is still the best way to prevent flu infection and minimize the severity of illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, flu vaccination drastically reduces flu-related hospitalizations. One study linked flu vaccination to a 71% reduction in flu-related hospitalizations among adults of all ages. Another study found that flu vaccination decreased the chances of a child being admitted to pediatric intensive care with influenza by 74%.

Myth #5: Vitamin C supplements prevent the flu.

Sadly, there’s no scientific evidence to support the idea that Vitamin C prevents the flu (or the common cold, or anything else, for that matter).

Want to prevent the flu? Try these steps:

  • Get a flu vaccine as soon as it’s available every year

  • Wash your hands frequently

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth

  • Stay away from sick people

  • If you come in contact with someone with the flu, let your healthcare provider know right away.You may be able to start antiviral medication, which may prevent you from getting the flu. Not everyone who is exposed to the flu needs antiviral medication; it’s most often used in people who are at high-risk of developing flu-related complications.

Knowing the facts about the flu can help you stay safe and healthy.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Jul 27

  1. Hemilä, H., & Chalker, E. (1996). Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database Of Systematic Reviews. doi:10.1002/14651858.cd000980.pub4. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD000980.pub4/abstract

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  8. Influenza & Influenza Vaccine Myths & Reality, The Joint Commission. http://www.jointcommission.org/assets/1/6/JC_influenza_myths.pdf

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  11. Preventing Colds and Flu, NHS Choices. http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/coldsandflu/Pages/Preventionandcure.aspx

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