Every flu season (which starts in October and peaks in January and February in the U.S.), as many as 20% of Americans get sick with a virus that can cause serious, even lethal complications (not to mention the general awfulness of a fever, chills, congestion, and body aches). So how come there are still so many myths and rumors about the flu? While officials aren't predicting whether this year's influenza will be better or worse than in years past, it's smart to make sure you know the truth about this dreaded virus and what you can do to reduce your risk of catching it.
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You can catch the flu from the flu shot
No, you can't. Really. This longstanding rumor just won't die no matter how often experts debunk it. "The flu vaccine is made with dead viral particles, and since the virus is not living, it can't infect you," explains Holly Phillips, M.D., a New York City internist and WCBS News medical contributor. The nasal-spray version of the vaccine, called the FluMist, (which is FDA-approved for kids and adults between ages two and 49 who are healthy and not pregnant) does contain a crippled version of live flu virus. However, it still can't make you sick, says Dr. Phillips. This misconception may stem from the fact that it takes 2 weeks for your body to form antibodies to the vaccine and fully protect you. So if you pick up a cold or the flu before or just after rolling up your sleeve, don't blame your runny nose and sore throat on the shot.
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Young, healthy people don't need to worry about the flu
"While it's true that influenza is most threatening to the very young, the elderly, and people with underlying illnesses, it can still cause severe symptoms in otherwise healthy people," says Dr. Phillips. That's why the CDC recommends that everyone get the shot, preferably early in flu season. Even if you're not in a high-risk group, getting the shot can stop you from transmitting the virus to more vulnerable people. "The more people who get the shot, the more we cut down on the amount of influenza circulating in the population, which can protect your grandmother or child," says Dr. Phillips. Even if you don't regularly interact with kids or seniors, take a few minutes and get the shot—at your doctor's office, local pharmacy, or community health center. You can't pass on a virus you never got in the first place.
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The flu includes gastrointestinal symptoms
As miserable as symptoms of the flu are, digestive distress is rarely one of them. What's politely called the "stomach flu" is a colloquial term that refers to a group of viruses that primarily cause vomiting and diarrhea, says Dr. Phillips. "These viruses are not influenza," she says. That's not to say that the flu doesn't occasionally lead to some gastrointestinal issues; some sufferers do experience nausea and even vomiting. But if you develop these symptoms without any of the classic flu tip-offs, you're probably dealing with an entirely different germ.
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Pregnant women can't get a flu shot
On the contrary, all pregnant women should get the jab as soon as possible. "The flu shot is very safe for pregnant women, and getting it can even protect the baby for the first few months of life, when he or she is not old enough to get the flu shot yet but is very vulnerable to illness," says Dr. Phillips. (Babies at least six months old are eligible for the vaccine.) Antibodies that form in response to the shot will not only protect you from the flu, they will protect your baby after birth and be delivered via breast milk, according to the CDC. Pregnancy causes immune, heart, and lung changes that can increase your risk for a bad case of flu, which can affect your pregnancy. "High fevers and severe infections can lead to serious pregnancy complications and even premature labor," says Dr. Phillips.
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You can stop the flu by washing your hands a lot
Don't get us wrong, we're all for washing your hands with soap and water. But it's not enough to stop the flu. Influenza is spread through the air via droplets of saliva from a person who is contagious (which starts a day before symptoms show and up to seven days after). The droplets can land on you and get into your nose, mouth, and eyes. You can also pick up the flu by touching contaminated surfaces (the flu can live up to eight hours on surfaces, according to the CDC), then touching your hand to your face. So wash your hands with soap and water and avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. This slashes your risk somewhat, Dr. Leavey says. It's also important to stand at least six feet from anyone with the flu; the airborne droplets can't travel farther than that. Disinfect common areas in your home or workplace if someone with the flu spent time there. And above all, get vaccinated.
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If you get the flu, the shot didn't work
It's true that the flu vaccine doesn't offer 100% protection. Usually, the flu shot is only about 60 to 90% effective. That's because multiple strains circulate every year, and it's difficult for scientists to predict perfectly which strains will be dominant. "If you do get the flu after going for the shot, it just means that you contracted a different strain that wasn't included in the vaccine," says Dr. Phillips. If this happens, there is an upside: your symptoms will likely be less severe, since the shot will probably be at least somewhat effective against the strain you have, she adds. And keep in mind that to the CDC, a flu shot is a success if it prevents hospitalizations and deaths, not if you sail through the season without a sniffle.
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Antibiotics can fight the flu
There's no point in bugging your doctor—antibiotics don’t work on viruses. That said, there are Rx antiviral meds that might help. Tamiflu is the best known; this drug has been shown to cut the course of the disease by 1-2 days, if you take it within 48 hours of the first sign of flu symptoms. These are generally recommended only for those at high risk of complications. "The effects are relatively modest," says Dr. Phillips. "Once you have the flu, you're going to be miserable regardless. Prevention with the flu shot is a better approach." Other meds that can offer some relief include over-the-counter fever reducers such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen, as well as congestion fighters. Best bet? Stay home, get some rest, drink lots of fluids, and wait it out (but be on your guard for serious complications).
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Bell's palsy is a side effect of the flu shot
Bell's palsy is a condition that causes weakness or paralysis on one side of the face. It's usually temporary, clearing up after several weeks, and it's typically thought to be triggered by a viral infection, such as herpes simplex (the virus responsible for cold sores) or Epstein-Barr, which leads to mononucleosis. How did the flu get into the mix? Decades ago, a few isolated cases of people developing Bell's palsy after getting a flu vaccine were reported. Yet no link was ever established showing that one caused the other, says Dr. Phillips. The overwhelming consensus is that the two have nothing to do with each other, adds Dr. Leavey.
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Flu shots can cause Alzheimer's
The flu shot doesn't cause any illness or condition, and that includes Alzheimer's disease, says Dr. Leavey. Alzheimer's is a type of dementia that leads to memory loss and other cognitive changes. Why some people develop Alzheimer's is not fully understood, and that opens the door to lots of speculation—which seems to be how the rumor linking the flu jab to Alzheimer's got its start. "The connection also has to do with the fact that senior citizens are strongly advised to get a flu shot every year, so people associate old age with flu shots, the way they associate old age with Alzheimer's," he says. "Or an elderly person who had a flu shot begins showing signs of memory loss months later. The two are unrelated, yet people conclude that the vaccine had something to do with it."