It's been said that what you don't know can't hurt you, but that's certainly not the case when it comes to the flu. Every year millions of people are either uninformed about the flu or buy into long-held myths about it, and end up suffering needlessly.
"This is a pretty busy time around here," said Dennis Cunningham, MD, a physician in Infectious Diseases at Nationwide Children's Hospital. "Our emergency departments, urgent care centers and inpatient numbers always go up because of the flu, although many of those patients could avoid getting sick if they'd practice a little prevention."
Dr. Cunningham says part of the problem is that many people buy into long-held myths about the flu vaccine, and will avoid getting immunized because of them. Here are four of the most common flu myths:
Myth #1 - The flu is only spread by sneezing. "Germs are pretty easy to pass around and flu is really contagious," said Dr. Cunningham. "It's very easy for one child to give it to another child and the next thing you know, they bring it home."
Because of that, experts say it is important to clean your hands often during flu season, and urge children to do the same. "The easiest way to do that is to use hand gels, but make sure they have at least 65 to 95 percent alcohol in it," said Dr. Cunningham. Or, if soap and water are nearby, wash your hands often. "Honestly, the temperature of the water doesn't matter so much as that rinsing motion and get the soap and virus completely off your hands. We tell our kids to sing their ABC's and wash their hands the entire time. That should be enough to get any virus off the surface of their hands."
Myth #2 - You should wait until it's cold outside to get your flu vaccine. "Some people are worried that if you get the shot too soon, it will wear off by the time winter gets here," said Dr. Cunningham. "The truth is, vaccinating people even in August will protect them throughout the entire flu season. This also includes the elderly who typically have been the group people were most worried about."
Myth #3 - Flu vaccines don't protect you from current strains. From the H1N1 scare in 2009 to swine flu to the bird flu, each year, it seems, there is a new strain making headlines. But researchers track the most recent, most dangerous strains, and work to stay one step ahead of it.
"The World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pick the strains they think are most likely to circulate in the coming months," said Dr. Cunningham. "Every year there are two A strains that are picked for the vaccine, and one B strain of influenza. So, we're going to be protect against everything that's likely to circulate."
Myth #4 - You can actually catch the flu from the flu vaccine. "This is probably the most common myth out there, but it simply is not true," said Dr. Cunningham. "The vaccine can give you some mild symptoms, you may feel a bit achy and your arm may be a little tender where you get the shot. But that's actually a good thing. It tells you your body is responding appropriately to the vaccine."
"No one should confuse a few slight symptoms with the actual flu," he said. "The vaccine can leave you feeling a bit warm or achy for a day or two, but with true influenza, someone is sick and in bed for a week with high fever. It's just not the same."
It is especially important for children to get the flu vaccine, even in mist form, which works just as well. Because they are around so many people - from peers to teachers, from siblings to adults to grandparents - children are the biggest carriers of the flu, and giving them the vaccine can protect a wide range of people.
"In fact, starting in 1980, Japan required the influenza vaccine for all school-aged children," said Dr. Cunningham. "They wound up vaccinating 80 percent of all students through their program and found that the number of flu deaths were four times lower than previous years, especially among the elderly. So, it is very important to get children vaccinated."
No one can predict how widespread the flu will be from year to year, but it is worth noting that the companies who manufacture the vaccines are apparently bracing for a busy flu season this year. The CDC says nearly 150 million doses will be produced this year, 17 million more than last year.¹
¹What You Should Know for the 2012-2013 Influenza Season, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, September 2012. Online: http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/season/flu-season-2012-2013.htm
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