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Flu Myths

Debunking the Myths, Misconceptions, and Misinformation About the Flu:

  • MYTH:  You can get the flu from the vaccine.  False.  The vaccine is made with inactivated organisms that can't cause disease.
  • MYTH:  The vaccine is only for seniors.  The flu vaccine is for anyone at risk.
  • MYTH:  The vaccine prevents influenza completely. The influenza vaccine's effectiveness varies each year and depends on two things: the Center for Disease Control's (CDC) prediction and the strength of a person's immune system.  The CDC predicts what strains will cause the next year's outbreak. In 1997-1998, however, the dominant influenza strain didn't evolve until after the vaccine was made, so its effectiveness was diminished. All vaccines give some immunity to related strains and make antiviral medications work better, so receiving a vaccine is still beneficial.  Immune system function varies considerably.  Ironically, the vaccine is less effective for those people who need it most, such as those over age 65 or those taking medications for AIDS or cancer.
  • MYTH:  Only old people get bad flu.  False. People of all ages get flu. People over 65 do have less protective immune systems just as do children under 12.  Both age groups may experience more severe symptoms as a result.  Several other groups are at high risk as well.
  • MYTH:  Flu can't kill you or cause any other serious problems.  False.  20,000-40,000 Americans will die each year from complications of the flu.  Influenza and pneumococcal pneumonia together are the 6th leading cause of death in Americans over age 65.  In addition, some experts believe that one of the long-term complications of the flu may be chronic fatigue syndrome, a debilitating condition that affects approximately 500,000 Americans.
  • MYTH:  If I take echinacea, I don't have to worry.  False.  In clinical studies, echinacea was found to be as effective as placebo in preventing colds and the flu.  Some studies suggest that this herb improves immune function and may reduce the severity and duration of a cold, not the flu.
  • MYTH:  I take Vitamin C; I have nothing to worry about.  False.  While there is a belief that Vitamin C may reduce the frequency, severity and duration of colds, this has not been proven in clinical trials. 
  • MYTH:  It's too late to get the flu vaccine this season.  False.  It takes 4-6 weeks for the vaccine to build sufficient flu-fighting antibodies.  If you get the vaccine right away, you may be able to prevent this season's flu, which peaks between Dec. and March.
  • MYTH:  Influenza is the same every year.  The influenza virus changes every year. Sometimes new strains develop which even seriously affect the healthy. Two particularly deadly mutations in the influenza virus caused the 1918 Spanish Flu, which killed 500,000 people, and the Asian flu in 1957-58, which killed 70,000 people in the U.S. alone. Type A Sidney, new in the 1997-98 flu season, appeared to be responsible for doubling the flu's death toll last year.   Some researchers are warning that we are overdue for another major flu epidemic in the near future.
  • MYTH:  It's easy to know when you have the flu.   Influenza is actually difficult to diagnose without a test. Specialists trained in recognition of influenza will typically diagnose influenza correctly only a third of the time. In patients that later prove to have influenza, doctors often make a diagnosis of a bacterial illness like sinusitis, pharyngitis or bronchitis nearly two out of three times. These diagnoses, of course, lead to treating patients with antibiotics. Inaccurate diagnosis is the common reason for overuse of antibiotics and the related complications.
  • MYTH:  There is no way for doctors to diagnose influenza for sure.  A new rapid throat swab test that is 99.9% accurate for influenza prevents the wrong diagnosis and subsequent antibiotic usage.
  • MYTH:  There is no treatment for influenza except rest, Tylenol and chicken soup.  There are now three FDA-approved medicines for treating influenza: amantadine, rimantadine, and zanamir (Relenza™). They will be used more often now that there is a reliable test to diagnosis influenza.
  • MYTH:  The flu vaccine is expensive.  Because this is such a contagious threat to the public heath, many public health departments give the vaccine for free to those at high risk and at greatly reduced cost ($5-$10) for all others.  There are vaccine days at malls and town halls.  Call your local municipality for further information.  In addition, if your physician gives you your vaccine, it is covered by Medicare, as well as by most insurance carriers for those at increased risk.
  • MYTH:  I got vaccinated last year, so I don't need to go again. False.  The dominant strains of the flu are different each year and the vaccine also differs each year.
  • MYTH:  I've already had the flu this year. I can't get it again.  Not necessarily.  You may have had one strain of the flu and later get the other!

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Created: 10/17/2000  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

 There are now three FDA-approved medicines for treating influenza: amantadine, rimantadine, and zanamir (Relenza™). 

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