12 Flu “Myths” That Are Actually True
The flu can survive longer on door handles than you realize, sneeze droplets can fly, and some folks actually need two flu shots. Get the facts.
Soon enough, you’ll be hearing a lot about the flu. How to prevent it, stop its spread, or get better faster. During the 2018-2019 flu season, there were up to 43 million cases of the flu, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates. Here’s what you need to know about the virus so you can stay healthy this year.
True: The flu virus can live awhile on surfaces
If you think living organisms like viruses and bacteria die quickly when they’re not infecting you, think again. The flu virus can live on hard surfaces for 48 hours, according to the CDC. “The most common way the flu virus is spread is when hands that have been in contact with contaminated surfaces go near your face,” says Papatya Tankut, RPh, vice president of pharmacy affairs at CVS Health. “That’s why you should wash your hands frequently with soap and water or an alcohol-based cleanser,” she says. Just watch out for these 10 hand-washing mistakes everyone makes.
True: It’s a bad idea to wait to get the flu shot
You can build a natural immunity to the flu—but to do that, you’d have to get sick first. Don’t fall for the thinking that it’s better to wait until the middle of the flu season to get a shot. Flu activity is highest in December and February, which means you should get your flu shot no later than the end of October, according to the CDC. It can take about two weeks after you get the shot for your body to create the antibodies that will protect you. And if you think you’re already sick, here are 11 things you should do at the first sign of the flu.
True: Cold air can make you sick
“Going out into the cold won’t make you sick,” says Saralyn Mark, MD, president and CEO of SolaMed Solutions, in Washington DC. “But if you are in the cold often, you increase the chance you could get infected,” she says. Here’s how that works: “Physiologically, your body adapts to the cold by allowing your mucous membranes to dry up. That mucus is a great defense mechanism. It gets stuff out of your body that you don’t want in it. When it dries up, you don’t have the protection, and a virus can get in,” Dr. Mark explains. Don’t miss these 20 things the flu virus doesn’t want you to know.
True: You can get sick from someone you weren’t around
When people with the flu sneeze or cough, microscopic droplets of moisture enter the air and they can circulate for hours before finding their way into your nose or mouth. A 2018 study in the journal PNAS found that people who are sick with influenza can shed the virus by breathing into the air—and people who breathe in that air could get sick. Check out the 10 reasons you need to take the flu seriously.
True: The flu can be contagious before symptoms begin
Yep, you can get sick from people who aren’t showing symptoms, and you can make other people sick when you feel fine. “People infected with the virus may be able to spread the virus to others one to two days before the symptoms actually begin,” says Sanjay Sethi, MD, professor of pulmonology at the University of Buffalo in Buffalo, New York. “The virus can spread in the air within surprising proximity of someone who is sick—sneeze droplets can travel up to six feet.”
True: The flu can be fatal
Don’t fall for actual flu myths like the common misconception that the flu is just a bad cold. “Though it’s considered a common winter illness, the flu can be serious,” Dr. Sethi says. “The most common complication is pneumonia, and it can happen when the influenza virus spreads into the lungs, or when unrelated bacteria attack a person’s weakened immune system,” he says. Watch for the 10 signs your flu might be deadly.
True: You can get the flu in the summer
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The flu may be known as a winter illness, but it’s not impossible to get it in the other three seasons of the year. “It’s true that the flu is less common in the summer,” says Thomas S. Ahrens, PhD, RN, FAAN, co-founder at Viven Health in Saint Louis, Missouri. Although the virus can’t travel as well in summer conditions, visitors from the Southern hemisphere—it’s winter there when we’re experiencing summer in the North—can bring the virus with them on a plane and into crowded subways, two places where the virus can easily find new hosts. Here’s proof the flu virus actually migrates like birds do.
True: There is no flu cure
Sad, but true—there’s no cure or treatment that will end the flu. Like most viral infections, the flu has to run its course. But there are medicines that can help you feel better faster, says Kathleen Dass, MD, an allergist and immunologist with Michigan Allergy, Asthma & Immunology Center in Oak Park, Michigan.
“Anti-virals, such as Oseltamivir [Tamiflu], can help you feel better faster and they can make your influenza less severe,” Dr. Dass says. She also points out that the drugs can leave you less contagious and less likely to end up in the hospital due to your illness. That said, the drugs will not cure influenza, she says. Learn how you can prepare yourself for the worst flu month each year.
True: Exercise can help you ward off the flu
Don’t cancel that workout: “Regular exercise, which can include taking brisk walks, has been shown to improve your immune system, thus decrease your likelihood for developing a cold or flu,” Dr. Dass says. But don’t overdo it. “If you’re training for a long marathon, that can have the opposite effect and hurt your immune system,” says Dr. Dass. Here are 9 ways you’re actually making your cold or flu worse.
True: You could get the shot and still get sick
You absolutely could get the flu despite getting the shot—but that’s no reason to avoid the vaccine. Your body does need that two weeks to build immunity to the virus. If you come into contact with it during that two-week period, you could still get sick. You could also come into contact with the virus before you get the vaccine. Therefore, you might incorrectly believe the vaccine made you sick. There may also be strains of the virus circulating that aren’t a “match” with the vaccine. Here’s how to tell the difference between a cold and the flu.
True: Some children need two flu vaccines
The CDC says children between six months and eight years of age may need two flu vaccines in one flu season. If the child is getting a flu vaccine for the first time, the CDC recommends they get two shots, spaced at least four weeks apart, to help build their strongest immunity possible. Talk with your child’s doctor about the number of flu vaccines they need.
True: The flu vaccine is always changing
The contents of the shot are an educated guess that researchers and scientists have to make. “Every year, the shot is created based on the best estimate from scientists as to what strains will predominate, but the flu virus is very intelligent and is good at mutating,” explains Hollin Calloway, MD, an otolaryngologist and facial plastic surgeon in Hoboken, New Jersey. “While some years the shot has been as effective as 60 to 80 percent, other years it has been only about 35 percent effective,” she says. Nonetheless, it’s always a good idea to get it.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “2018-2019 U.S.Flu Season: Preliminary Burden Estimates.”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “How To Clean and Disinfect Schools to Help Slow the Spread of Flu.”
- Papatya Tankut, RPh, vice president of pharmacy affairs at CVS Health
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Frequently Asked Flu Questions 2018-2019 Influenza Season.”
- Saralyn Mark, MD, president and CEO of SolaMed Solutions, LLC in Washington DC
- PNAS: “Infectious virus in exhaled breath of symptomatic seasonal influenza cases from a college community.”
- Sanjay Sethi, MD, professor in pulmonology at the University of Buffalo
- Thomas S. Ahrens, PhD, RN, FAAN, co-founder at Viven Health in Saint Louis, MO
- Kathleen Dass, MD, an allergist and immunologist with Michigan Allergy, Asthma & Immunology Center in Oak Park, MI
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Key Facts About Seasonal Flu Vaccine.”
- Hollin Calloway, MD, an otolaryngologist and facial plastic surgeon in Hoboken, NJ