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David Baxter PhD

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Top 12 Flu Myths
By R. Morgan Griffin, WebMD
October 18, 2007

What?s the truth about the flu, and what?s myth?

For something as well-known and commonplace as the flu, it?s subject to an awful lot of silly myths. And like the flu itself, flu myths are hard to contain and hard to fight.

?There are urban myths and rural myths about the flu,? says William Schaffner, MD, chairman of the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University?s School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn. ?Flu myths are everywhere.?

Unfortunately, flu myths are common even among the people who should know better, like health care workers. Given that the flu can be serious and even fatal, it?s crucial that we all know what?s fact and what?s fable. So as a public service, and with the help of some flu experts from around the country, WebMD helps you debunk the top 12 flu myths.

Flu Myth #1: The flu is annoying but harmless.
Experts agree: We tend to underestimate the seriousness of the flu. ?A lot of people just think of the flu as a very bad cold,? says Curtis Allen, a spokesman for the CDC in Atlanta. But it?s much worse than that.

For one, you usually feel terrible. In addition to the congestion and cough, you?re apt to have nasty body aches and fever, which are less likely with a garden-variety cold. ?When you get the flu, you know it,? says Christine Hay, MD, assistant professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center. ?You feel like you?ve been hit by a Mack truck.?

Aside from the short-term misery and lost workdays, flu can have more serious implications. Sure, most people who get the flu recover just fine. But the flu also hospitalizes 200,000 people in the U.S. each year. It kills about 36,000. That?s close to the number of women killed by breast cancer each year, and more than twice the number of people killed by AIDS.

Flu Myth #2: The flu vaccine can give you the flu.
This is the flu myth most likely to drive experts bonkers. ?There is simply no way that the flu vaccine can give you the flu,? says Hay. ?It?s impossible.?

Why? For one, injected flu vaccines only contain dead virus, and a dead virus is, well, dead: it can?t infect you. There is one type of live virus flu vaccine, the nasal vaccine, FluMist. But in this case, the virus is specially engineered to remove the parts of the virus that make people sick.

Despite the scientific impossibility of getting the flu from the flu vaccines, this widespread flu myth won?t die. Experts suspect two reasons for its persistence. One, people mistake the side effects of the vaccine for flu. While side effects to the vaccine these days tend to be a sore arm, in the past, side effects often felt like mild symptoms of the flu. Two, flu season coincides with a time of year when bugs causing colds and other respiratory illnesses are in the air. Many people get the vaccine and then, within a few days, get sick with an unrelated cold virus. However, they blame the innocent flu vaccine, rather than their co-worker with a runny nose and cough.

Flu Myth #3: There is no treatment for the flu.
If you can get to the doctor?s quickly -- within 48 hours of contracting the flu -- there are antiviral medications that can help. These drugs, such as Tamilflu and Relenza, won?t cure the flu. But they can reduce the amount of time you?re sick by one or two days and make you less contagious to others.

Antiviral medications are recommended for anyone over the age of 1 who has the flu. They can also be used as prevention for someone who has been exposed to the flu, or who -- because of illness -- might be at great risk from flu complications. As prevention, antiviral medication is effective between 70% to 90% of the time.

Flu Myth #4: Antibiotics can fight the flu.
Antibiotics only fight bacterial infections. The flu is not caused by bacteria, but by a virus. So antibiotics have absolutely no effect on the flu. But this message just won?t sink in for some people.

?We still have oodles of patients coming into the doctors, or bringing their children to the doctors, who want antibiotics for influenza,? says Schaffner.

However, there are instances of flu complications that involve bacterial infection. The flu virus can weaken your body and allow bacterial invaders to infect you. Secondary bacterial infections to the flu include bronchitis, ear infections, sinusitis, and most often, pneumonia.

Some patients with flu want antibiotics just in case they might develop a complication. But Hay says this attempt at prevention doesn?t work. It could make things worse. ?If you take antibiotics unnecessarily and then really do wind up with a secondary bacterial infection, then it might be resistant to those antibiotics,? Hay tells WebMD.

Flu Myth #5: The flu is only dangerous for the elderly.
It?s true that the people most likely to become seriously ill or die from the flu are over age 65. But flu can become risky for anyone, even healthy young adults. Some of the most susceptible are young children.

?Children under 2 years have some of the highest rates of hospitalization from the flu,? says Hay. Children under 6 months are at the most risk because they?re too young to get the vaccine.

To protect infants from the flu, keep babies away from people who have the flu, and make sure their babysitters and child care staff get the flu vaccine.

Flu Myth #6: ?Stomach flu? is a form of influenza.
The word ?flu? is so overused that it?s lost much of its actual meaning. Gastrointestinal viruses are called the ?stomach flu,? but they have no connection to the actual influenza virus. If you suffer vomiting and diarrhea, but no fever or body ache, you probably do not have the flu.

Keep in mind: in children, the influenza virus can sometimes cause vomiting and diarrhea. However, those symptoms are rare in adults with flu, says Trish M. Perl, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore.

Flu Myth #7: If you get the flu, you can?t get it again during that flu season.
Many people assume that if they?ve had the flu recently, they can?t get it again -- and thus don?t need to get the vaccine, Perl says. That?s not the case because the flu isn?t a single virus.

?In any flu season, there?s usually both Type A and Type B influenza in circulation,? Perl tells WebMD. Both can cause the flu. It?s quite possible that you could get infected with one type and then the other.

So if you?ve already had the flu, you should still get the vaccine. ?Otherwise, you could be sick and unhappy twice,? Perl says.

Flu Myth #8: If you?re young and healthy, you don?t need to worry about getting the vaccine.
First of all, we should all get the vaccine. Sure, if you?re in good health, you?ll probably recover just fine. But why suffer through the flu if you can avoid it? Second, protecting yourself isn?t the only reason to get vaccinated.
?Healthy adults forget that while they themselves might be at low risk for getting serious flu complications, other people in their family might not,? says Hay. If you have a small child at home, or an older parent, your failure to get yourself vaccinated could endanger them.

And that?s true on a larger, societal level. People with the weakest defenses -- like children under 6 months and those with severely compromised immune systems -- can?t get the flu vaccine. Their safety depends on the rest of us getting immunized.

Flu Myth #9: You can skip years between flu vaccinations.
Experts say that some of us don?t understand that we need a new flu vaccine every year. ?It?s confusing, since the flu vaccine is different from most vaccines, which offer longer-lasting protection,? says Schaffner. ?With the measles vaccine, you get two injections and then you don?t have to worry about it for the rest of your life.? The flu vaccine isn?t like that.

Why? The particular strains of flu that are dominant change every single year. So every single year, researchers have to develop a brand new vaccine. After the flu season ends, the old vaccine is worthless.

Flu Myth #10: Vaccines are dangerous.
In recent years, there?s been growing mistrust of vaccines, including the flu vaccine. Some believe that there could be a link between vaccines -- specifically the ingredient thimerosal -- and developmental disorders in children, like autism. However, no study has ever found a connection, and experts say that we?re losing sight of how important vaccines are.

?Vaccines are, arguably, the greatest medical advance in history,? says Perl. They?ve prevented more illness and death than any treatment.

If you?re still concerned, you should know that there are thimerosal-free flu vaccines are available. In fact, every year, manufacturers produce more of this vaccine than people use. If you want your child to get it, just ask your doctor.

Flu Myth #11: Cold weather causes the flu.
No matter what your grandmother may have said, going outside in the winter hatless does not increase your risk of flu. While there might seem to be a connection -- since flu season coincides with colder months in the U.S. -- there isn?t. After all, flu season is the same throughout the whole country: even if it?s frigid in Minnesota, it?s still warm in Florida. The rise and fall of flu season each year has more to do with the natural cycle of the virus, although experts aren?t exactly sure how it works.

Colder weather might increase the risk of flu in one way: We might come into closer contact with other people because we?re all stuck inside. That could make it easier for the virus to spread.

Flu Myth #12: If you haven?t gotten the flu vaccine by November, there?s no point getting vaccinated.
While supplies of vaccine used to run out by November, that?s not the case anymore, says Allen. This year, there should be enough vaccine for anyone who wants it, and you?ll be able to get it as late as December or January. Besides, the flu often doesn?t hit its peak until February or sometimes as late as March.

So no matter the month, if you haven?t had your flu vaccine yet, go get it. You could spare yourself -- and your family -- a lot of misery.
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