Stopping Flu Myths Before the Flu Stops You

Dr. Imran Ali at UConn Center on Aging busts the most common flu myths. Myth #1: The flu isn’t that bad -- it's just sniffles and body aches.

Women feeling sick and sleeping on sofa at home

(Getty Images)

This fall, the spread of influenza is starting to pick up some speed, and with holiday gatherings and shopping sprees around the corner, it may only spread faster or wider. Dr. Imran Ali, physician fellow in geriatric medicine at UConn Center on Aging, busts some of the most common flu myths.

Myth 1: The flu isn’t that bad — it’s just sniffles and body aches.

Tell that to anyone who has had a severe or even a mild case of influenza.

The influenza virus is much more than the sniffles and body aches. In addition to making you very ill for the span of days-to-weeks, untreated, the flu can indeed lead to hospitalization and even death. Symptoms of the flu can come on suddenly, which is very different than a cold, and include: fever or feeling feverish with chills, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, fatigue or tiredness, and sometimes vomiting and diarrhea. Also, having the flu can set you up for a more serious type of bacterial pneumonia that can have serious consequences for your lungs delivery of oxygen to the rest of your body.

Myth 2: I got my flu shot already, I’m totally safe from influenza.

No, you can still get the flu even though you received the flu shot.

Each year the annual flu shot is created to protect you from the flu virus strains that are expected to be most prevalent during that specific flu season. However, new strains or strengths can surface each flu season. Getting the flu vaccine will either prevent the flu or ensure you only suffer from a mild case.Or, you can come down with a more mild version of the expected flu. Sometimes this means that if you get the flu you may not even notice it or you have a much milder case. In addition to getting the flu shot annually, remember to wash your hands and clean contact surfaces more frequently to help prevent the spread of the virus.

Myth 3: I’m young and healthy. I don’t have to worry about the flu.

No, no matter how young or old you are, the flu does not discriminate.

The flu is spread in the air, by human-to-human contact, or shared through touching shared surfaces like doorknobs or bathroom fixtures. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone over six months of age receive a flu vaccination annually. However, it is true that the highest risk groups for flu complications are older adults, children, pregnant women, and those who may be immune compromised or have a chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes or COPD.

Myth 4: The flu shot will make me sick with the flu.

You can never get the flu from the flu vaccine because it never actually has the real virus in it.

The shot contains a harmless substance that only looks like the virus, which helps your immune system recognize the real thing. Yes, as with any many medication, there are side effects and this can include soreness, tenderness, and redness or swelling where the shot was given. Sometimes you might have headache, muscle aches, fever, and nausea or feel tired. Those symptoms only last a day or two. Also, your doctor will choose not give you the vaccine when you are already sick because your immune system will not be ready to respond to the vaccine as it is already busy fighting what made you sick.

Myth 5: Vaccines are just for kids, I’m an adult and don’t need the flu vaccine.

While there are vaccines for kids there are also vaccines specifically designed for adults and older adults.

The flu vaccine is designed to help protect you against the influenza virus by training your body’s own immune system to fight the virus if it happens to get into your body. Your body has a great defense system against viruses: your immune system. Your doctor may order a high-dose vaccine that is recommended for older adults because as we age our immune system gets a little weaker. The flu vaccine can help keep you out of the hospital.

Myth 6: I got the flu vaccine last year, I don’t think I need it again.

You need to be immunized every flu season.

Every year, scientists analyze the most likely types of influenza viruses that will lurk around in the public and design a vaccine that targets those types of what we call strains or “flavors” of flu out there. The vaccine basically works by teaching your own immune system to recognize the virus well before you actually come face-to-face with it in the real world.

Myth 7: This August, I got my flu shot early before flu season started so I am extra protected.

Getting the flu shot is the most important step you can take to maintain your health, whether getting it early or late in the flu season.

Flu season typically runs from October to May. While the CDC’s general recommendation is that people get a flu vaccine by the end of October, older adults should get their vaccinations a little later, just before or around Thanksgiving. UConn Center on Aging research has been showing that vaccine-induced immunity wanes faster in older adults, so by waiting a few weeks for vaccination, protection can be extended further into the winter months, when the flu is most often spreads. The right timing for the flu vaccine is especially important for older adults, who are at a higher risk.

Myth 8: If I get the flu, I get it. There’s nothing I can do to prevent it.

Actually in addition to getting the flu vaccine, you can take these key steps to lower your risk of contracting the virus:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth to stop the spread of germs.
  • Avoid close contact with sick people.
  • Practice a healthy diet and lifestyle to keep your immune system in top condition.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with your elbow sleeve or a tissue when you cough or sneeze. And if you use a tissue, make sure to throw the tissue away in the trash after you use it.
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with germs.
  • If you have a fever or are sick with flu-like symptoms, stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone without the use of a fever-reducing medicine.

Myth 9: It’s “just” the flu.

Everyone needs to take the flu seriously since its spread can not only lead to severe illness and hospitalization but also death especially for those in the highest risk patient groups.

Older adults are more severely affected by the flu as it is among the top ten causes of death in the older adults each year. Those over age 65 generally have a harder time defending against the flu virus which can also develop into severe lung issues in the older adult including secondary bacterial pneumonia. Remember, if you don’t get the vaccine to prevent the virus you really should since if you don’t get vaccinated you are capable of getting and further spreading the disease putting everyone at risk, especially older adults.

Myth 10: If I get the flu I will just tough it out and still go to school or work.

Please don’t tough it out.

Flu recovery can take a couple of weeks, or longer for the young and old. In addition to seeking a medical care check-up with your primary care physician or urgent care, please stay home until you don’t have a fever or symptoms. Also, plan to:

  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Stay in bed.
  • Drink plenty of fluids, with lots of water and warm soup or broth to remain hydrated.
  • Take an over-the-counter fever-reducing medication as directed.
  • Take antiviral medications via prescription.
  • Take antibiotics via prescription if pneumonia develops.