Each year, thousands of Americans come down with the flu. For most people, having the flu is an unpleasant experience, but overall it’s not too harmful. However, the flu can be dangerous for those with underlying health conditions — and some of the myths surrounding a bout with influenza can do much more harm than good, too.
That’s why it’s useful to have an understanding of what the flu is, how to best protect yourself from it each year and which commonly held beliefs are actually misconceptions that we all need to unlearn. It’s time to dispel some of the most common myths about the flu to set the record straight.
1. Getting a flu shot can give you the flu.
Contrary to what many people believe, you cannot get the flu from getting a flu shot. The viral material used to create influenza vaccinations is either completely inactive or weakened so it’s incapable of causing infection. Furthermore, the vaccines are put through a series of rigorous tests before medical professionals are allowed to administer them to people. There are some potential side effects from getting a flu shot, such as pain at the site of injection and, rarely, a mild fever. However, the flu shot is considered very safe and is effective in protecting you from seasonal influenza.
2. You need antibiotics to get rid of the flu.
Antibiotics are only effective for fighting bacterial infections. They won’t help to treat the flu because the flu is caused by a virus, not bacteria. Your doctor might recommend antiviral medications, which are created to treat viruses, for the treatment of influenza. In rare cases, vulnerable people may become infected with a bacterial infection at the same time that they have the flu. This can make people feel very unwell and does require treatment with antibiotics.
3. You can only get the flu once each flu season.
There are two common types of the influenza virus: type A and type B. They both cause people to experience similar symptoms, and it’s impossible to tell which strain you have without laboratory testing. Becoming infected with one of the influenza viruses prompts your body to produce antibodies, which “remember” the virus and work to make it highly unlikely that you’ll become infected again with the same strain. However, becoming infected with one strain does not provide immunity to the other strain(s). Therefore, it’s possible that you might get the flu more than once during a season because two different strains can cause separate illnesses.
4. Healthy people don’t need to get a flu vaccination.
Anyone can become infected with the flu, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends vaccination for everyone over the age of 6 months, with rare exceptions. It’s true that if you’re healthier you’re also less likely to become unwell from the flu, and you’re more likely to have a speedy recovery.
However, having the flu still isn’t normally the most pleasant experience, and while you’re infected it’s possible for you to pass the virus on to people who are more vulnerable. Therefore, vaccination isn’t just beneficial for protecting yourself; it’s also necessary for protecting your loved ones, coworkers and other members of your community.
5. There is no treatment for the flu.
While there’s no quick “cure” for influenza, there are many treatments that make the symptoms more bearable. The use of over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help relieve fever symptoms and aches and pains. Staying hydrated and getting plenty of rest can help your immune system fight off the virus.
If you become unwell with the flu or are at high risk of developing complications from having the flu, antiviral drugs such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza) may be recommended. These drugs aren’t available over the counter; your doctor must prescribe them. They help to lessen flu symptoms, particularly if you take them within 48 hours of the onset of any flu-like symptoms. Although they don’t cure the flu, they can reduce the length of time that you’re sick, help you feel better faster and make you less contagious to others.
6. Flu vaccinations start to wear off towards the end of flu season.
Flu vaccinations are manufactured to target the flu viruses that are predicted to be most prevalent each year. Each year’s newly formulated flu vaccine is designed to provide lasting protection that persists throughout one entire flu season. There’s no evidence that the flu vaccine “wears off” by the end of the season or is any less effective at preventing infection if you get it later in the season. In fact, it’s advisable to get your flu shot early on in the season to benefit from maximum protection.
7. The stomach flu is the same thing as the flu.
“Stomach flu” is the term given to the symptoms that occur when a person becomes infected with a gastrointestinal virus — an infection in your intestines. The symptoms of this type of virus may include vomiting, nausea and diarrhea. The stomach flu is caused by viruses other than influenza viruses, so it’s not the same illness as the flu.
8. You can catch the flu from going out in the cold without a coat or with wet hair.
You can only catch the flu from being exposed to the influenza virus. Cold weather, seasonally inappropriate clothing and wet hair — or a combination of the three — cannot give you the flu. However, flu season does coincide with the onset of winter in most places, which is where this common misconception may have arisen.
9. If you’re feeling well, then you can’t spread the flu.
It’s difficult to tell what proportion of people are infected with the flu but have no symptoms. Current research estimates that up to 50% of influenza infections are asymptomatic. You can still pass influenza to another person even if you have no symptoms, but that’s much less likely to happen than if you have symptoms. Still, if you think you might have been exposed to the flu, it’s sensible to avoid close contact with others to prevent asymptomatic transmission.
Evidence also suggests that if you do develop symptoms, you can transmit the virus to others for the entire period that you’re symptomatic — not just for the first day or two, which is a commonly held myth. Transmission is unlikely once your symptoms have completely resolved, but it’s critical to avoid close contact with others until you feel totally well again.
10. You can’t die from the flu.
Unfortunately, seasonal influenza causes many deaths per year. Vulnerable people — particularly young children, the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions — can develop severe illness as a result of influenza infection. In analyzing data from the United States from 2010 to 2020, the CDC found that 140,000–810,000 people are hospitalized with influenza each year. And, influenza results in between 12,000 and 61,000 deaths each year. That’s why it’s so important to take the flu seriously, get your annual flu shot and, if you do come down with the flu, stay away from vulnerable people until you’ve recovered.