It happens once a year, around the fall, when we all start to hear more about the flu shot and protecting ourselves from the flu. If you’ve ever had it, you understand the cause for concern. The influenza virus is most common during the winter months. Plus, it causes tens of thousands of deaths in the United States each year. “Because influenza is spread from person to person, it is understandable why it is most common in the winter months (December to March in the Northern Hemisphere, June to September in the Southern Hemisphere) when people spend more time indoors, in close proximity to each other,” explains David Cutler, M.D., family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “Nowadays, with international airline travel, however, the disease is spread everywhere in all months, although still most common in the winter.”
The individuals most at risk of catching the flu are the elderly, the very young, and those with chronic diseases or a compromised immune system (including pregnant women). For this reason, Dr. Cutler explains, the recommendation is that everyone over six months of age get a flu vaccine. This especially applies to those over 65, those under the age of five, pregnant women, residents of nursing homes, or those with a chronic disease. However, there’s a lot of controversy in regards to the vaccine, mostly due to common myths surrounding it. According to Dr. Cutler, any debate about the value of the flu vaccine is a false debate. “There is truly no doubt about the value of the vaccine and the certainty that its benefits far outweigh any risks.”
But, chatter around the vaccine is the least of the flu myths going around these days. We talked to doctors to uncover some of the most common flu myths. Here’s what we really need to know about the disease and how to stay healthy.
1. Myth: The flu shot can actually give you the flu.
Rest assured, this is totally untrue. The flu vaccine does not cause the flu. In fact, it’s completely impossible for the vaccine to transmit the infection. This is because it’s made from an inactive virus, according to Robert Segal, M.D., co-founder of LabFinder.com. “It takes about two weeks for the vaccine to kick in. Those who got sick immediately after getting vaccinated thought that it was the vaccine that caused their illness,” he adds. If you did happen to get sick, or perhaps even got the flu, after getting the vaccine, it only means that you were well on your way to getting sick before you got vaccinated.
2. Myth: If you hardly ever get sick, you don’t need the flu shot.
It’s true that only about 5 percent of the U.S. population gets the flu each year. Plus, only about 5 percent of those cases are severe enough to cause hospitalization. However, Dr. Cutler points out the greater benefit of the flu vaccine for young, healthy adults. It prevents you from spreading the flu to other people more susceptible to it. This is especially important for people the flu could be fatal for. “You may not need it for you, but you may need it to protect me!” he adds.
3. Myth: The flu isn’t that bad.
Some people, often those who’ve never had the flu before, believe that it’s merely a bad case of the common cold. The flu may share many of the same symptoms as the common cold. These include a sore throat, headache, runny nose, and fatigue. However, these are really only one part of the flu package, according to Dr. Segal. “The flu, on the other hand, will not only slow you down, but can put you on bedrest for a couple of days,” he says. “Because of the complications that the flu brings, the worst case scenario for it is death.”
4. Myth: The flu shot doesn’t work.
The influenza virus is different each year. Given the fact that the vaccine is based on prior years’ virus, the effectiveness of the flu shot can change year by year. However, Joshua Scott, M.D., primary care sports medicine physician at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, points out that even small decreases in the number of cases can dramatically affect public health. “Those who get the vaccine and contract the virus usually have significantly less severe symptoms and are not sick or infectious for as long,” he says.
5. Myth: Getting vaccinated is all you need to protect yourself from the flu.
Strains of the flu virus are different every year. The annual flu shot is made up of a prediction of which flu strains are most common during the upcoming season, explains Rebecca Lee, New York-based R.N. and founder of Remedies for Me. “The shot contains about three to four common strains of the virus,” she says. “You [also] need to avoid contact with infected people, eat healthy, exercise, and frequently wash your hands.”
How to Protect Yourself
Besides getting the flu shot, each year there are several ways to avoid getting the flu. “Washing your hands frequently, and before meals, with soap and water is helpful to prevent transmission of the virus that can be found anywhere, such as a doorknob or computer keyboard,” says Dr. Scott. “Try to eat healthy foods and get enough sleep so [that] you can improve your immune system and lessen the chance of transmission if you [are to] come into contact with the virus.”