Sorting the Old Wives Tales from Scientific Fact
The flu has been with humankind for a long time and continues to be one of the most lethal viruses. Over the centuries, a lot of flu myths have come along. Some are so ridiculous as to be laughable, but others persist to this day. We'll expose some common flu myths and give you the facts about one of the world's leading killers.
Myth 1: the Flu is Uncomfortable but Generally Harmless
This couldn't be more false. Influenza is the sixth leading cause of death in American adults and kills more than 30,000 people every year and hospitalizes close to 200,000. That's more than twice the number of people that die from aids annually. While most healthy adults will recover from the flu without any problems, children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems are especially vulnerable to the flu.
Myth 2: Children, Pregnant Women and Old People Shouldn't Get a Flu Shot
The CDC states that, with very few exceptions, every person over the age of 6 months, including those age 65 and older and pregnant women, should get an annual flu shot.
Myth 3: Healthy Adults Don't Really Need a Flu Shot
It's true that most healthy adults that get the flu recover with no serious problems. However, anyone who has had the flu can testify that it is far worse than a bad cold. Getting the flu will almost certainly lead to missed days of work not to mention a lot of discomfort and potential complications. While these personal consequences might seem negligible, far more important is the effect that influenza can have on other people. While a healthy adult may recover from the flu, his elderly neighbor that catches it may not. Everyone who can be vaccinated should be vaccinated to protect those who are more vulnerable to flu.
Myth 4: The Flu Shot Can Give You the Flu
Doctors have been tearing their hair out over this myth for years. It is scientifically impossible for a flu vaccine to cause the flu. Flu vaccines contain a dead strain of influenza. Because the virus is dead, it's physically impossible for it to cause the flu. The nasal spray vaccine does contain live virus, but the strain is genetically engineered to remove the parts of the virus that make people sick.
Myth 5: The Stomach Flu is Another Type of Influenza
Stomach flu is actually not related to influenza at all. Generally, the term "stomach flu" is used to describe any sickness that includes vomiting, diarrhea, or stomach upset. These symptoms are usually caused by another type of infection called gastroenteritis.
Myth 6: You Only Need to Get a Flu Shot Every Couple of Years
All viruses mutate, but influenza is especially prone to mutation. This means that every single year, there are new dominant types of influenza and scientists have to develop a unique vaccine each flu season. This is why, unlike many other vaccines, a flu shot is given annually.
Myth 7: Flu Shots Aren't Always Effective
The level of effectiveness of influenza vaccines varies from year to year, but generally falls between 70 and 90%. Because scientists have to make an educated guess as to which strain of influenza will be dominant in the coming season, some vaccines are more effective at granting immunity than others. However, even if you do get the flu after receiving a flu shot, you are much less likely to develop complications like pneumonia and will probably have a shorter period of illness.
Myth 8: If You've Already Had the Flu, You Don't Need a Flu Shot
There is more than one type of influenza. The most common strains are A and B, but there is also an influenza C. Most annual flu shots offer protection from both influenza A and B, so even if you've had the flu once during flu season, you might still get another strain and should get a flu shot.
Myth 9: There is No Point Getting a Flu Shot After Christmas
Flu season generally begins in October and lasts until well into spring. Some years, influenza doesn't peak until February or even March. No matter how far into the flu season, it's important to get vaccinated. While supplies of flu vaccine used to run out by November, these days there is enough for everyone to get protected.
Myth 10: Flu Shots are Dangerous
There has been a lot of buzz about vaccines causing health problems in children. Autism and Guillian-Barré syndrome have both been allegedly linked with flu vaccines. There is no scientific research that links autism to flu or any other vaccines. If you are concerned, talk to your doctor or pediatrician about vaccinating your child with a flu shot that doesn't contain thimerosal, the ingredient that is supposedly linked to autism.
Guillian-Barré syndrome occurs when the immune system attacks the body's nerve cells. In 1976, there was a batch of flu vaccine that was linked with a very small increase in the incidence of Guillian-Barré syndrome. Most studies have found no link between flu vaccines and Guillian-Barré syndrome. However, two studies did find that there was an increase in the number of cases that amounted to 1 person out of each million people vaccinated. In short, the risk, if any, is so small as to be negligible. A person is far more likely to develop serious complications from influenza than they are to get Guillian-Barré syndrome from a flu vaccine.