For something as pervasive as the flu is (it’s estimated that 5 to 20 percent of the U.S. population contracts it each year), there sure is a lot of misinformation about it.
Below are eight of the most prevalent flu myths, followed by the real story for each of them.
1. You can get the flu from the flu shot.
Out of all the myths, this one is the most persistent. While doctors and health magazines and news programs will all say, without equivocation, that you can’t catch the flu from a flu shot or a nasal spray flu vaccine, it’s still not common knowledge.
According to the CDC, the most common side effects from flu shots are soreness, redness, tenderness and swelling at the location where the shot was administered. It’s also possible to experience a low-grade fever, headache and muscle aches, but absolutely not the flu itself.
2. One form of the flu comes with abdominal pains.
What people refer to as “stomach flu” isn’t really the flu at all. When you’re sick with a stomachache, nausea, diarrhea or vomiting, it’s caused by bacteria, some virus other than influenza or even a parasite.
3. You can outsmart the flu by washing your hands a lot.
It’s a time-honored method of cold prevention, but unfortunately it can’t save you (though it can’t hurt.) You typically catch flu by inhaling tiny droplets of water that are expelled when infected people cough, sneeze or even just talk, starting a day before they begin to show symptoms. But since you can also catch it from physical contact with an infected person and by touching surfaces they’ve touched, washing hands is still a good idea.
4. Antibiotics can fight the flu.
No again, sadly. Influenza is a virus, and antibiotics can’t counteract it.
5. You can get the flu from going outside with wet hair.
This is an old wives’ tale. You catch the flu from inhaling the virus or through physical contact with an infected person or something they’ve touched.
6. Young, healthy people don’t need to worry about the flu.
More than 200,000 people are hospitalized every year from seasonal flu-related complications. While older people, young children, pregnant women and people with certain health conditions are at the highest risk, the flu is serious enough for anyone to take seriously. Especially considering that the flu shot poses no risk of infecting you.
If you’re young and healthy and get immunized, you potentially represent one less possible host for the virus, which helps to slow its spread and to protect more vulnerable populations.
7. You should wait until flu season gets underway to be vaccinated so the immunity lasts until the end of the season.
It varies between people, but studies have shown that immunity from a flu shot typically lasts for the duration of cold and flu season (though, for older people, it can decline more quickly.)
That said, it’s wise to get a flu shot as soon as it’s available – typically around October – especially since it typically takes around two weeks for enough antibodies to develop to protect you from infection. For people 65 and older, “high-dose” vaccines may be a good option to ensure that immunity lasts for as long as needed.
8. Pregnant women can’t get a flu shot.
On the contrary, they can and should. Being pregnant makes a woman far more likely to become seriously ill from the flu, which can endanger her baby. And antibodies are often passed to unborn children, which can protect them from the influenza virus for up to six months after they’re born, before they’re old enough to get a flu shot themselves. We suggest consulting with your doctor.
Are there flu myths that we missed?