15 Flu Myths Doctors Wish You’d Stop Believing
There is a lot of superstition and nonsense surrounding the flu virus and vaccines, say experts. Here’s what you need to stop believing now.
Myth: You’re only contagious when you have a fever
A fever is a sign your body is fighting invading viruses, bacteria, or other pathogens—but you’re not well the moment your fever disappears. “Some people take cough syrup or Tylenol, which can reduce fever. You think your fever is gone, but you’ve only taken medication to reduce it,” says Saralyn Mark, MD, president & CEO of SolaMed Solutions. Despite your normal temperature, you could very well still be sick—and sharing the virus.
Plus, Dr. Mark says, the older you are, the less likely you are to have a high fever. “I’ve had older patients that were so ill they were in shock, but they didn’t have a fever,” she says. “They just don’t have the ability to mount a fever, so I tend not to use it as an indicator.” Here’s how to tell if your flu symptoms are real.
Myth: You can get the flu from the flu vaccine
Experts stress again and again that this myth isn’t true, and yet it is the most common—and a most dangerous—misconception. The confusion is due to the fact that it can take a couple of weeks for protection to kick in, says Robin Jacobson, MD, pediatrician at NYU Langone Pediatric Associates at Irving Place, part of Hassenfield Children’s Hospital. “Since people get the flu shot usually during cold and flu season, it is possible to get sick around the time you are getting a flu shot.”
Myth: If you don’t have symptoms, you’re not infectious
You can share the virus for 24 to 48 hours before you show a single symptom. Every person you come into contact with during that time could become ill because of you. “You always have to be cautious,” Dr. Mark says. “You don’t know who’s sick. They may not know they’re sick.” Keep your distance to avoid sneezes, coughs, and saliva—and keep washing your hands regularly.
Worse, you can continue to spread the flu up to five days after you become ill. If you head out or back to work too soon, you could be infecting everyone you come into contact with. Here are the 11 things to do at the first sign of flu.
Myth: A bad cold can turn into the flu
“The flu is caused by a different virus and produces more severe symptoms than the common cold virus,” says Sanjay Sethi, MD, a medical reference author with Merck Manuals. “It also affects cells that are much deeper in the respiratory tract than the common cold virus and causes more damage to those cells.”
If your symptoms are more severe than a typical cold but not as severe as the flu, you could have picked up any number of viral infections that run rampant during the cold and flu season. Some of them even mimic flu symptoms, but won’t show up on virus tests.
Myth: Wearing a mask can prevent the flu
Some people are fond of wearing a hospital mask during the season when they go to the grocery store or mall, but this measure won’t do much to protect them. “Masks usually don’t help prevent the flu,” says Thomas S. Ahrens, PhD, RN, FAAN, founder, chief scientist, and learning officer at Viven Health. That’s because you can pick up the virus on your hands and catch it by rubbing your eyes, nose, or mouth. “There are some situations where wearing a mask may be helpful,” Dr. Ahrens adds, “like if you’re in a crowded area and someone close to you is sick, particularly if he or she is coughing.” Watch for the 10 signs your flu might be deadly.
Myth: Only people with chronic illness should get the flu vaccine
You’ve likely heard that young children, older people, and individuals with a compromised immune system should get the flu shot. They should—but so should everyone else. “Getting an annual flu vaccination is the best way for healthy children and adults to avoid getting the flu, and avoid spreading it to others,” Dr. Sethi says. “It’s especially important for people at high risk for complications from the flu, such as older adults and pregnant women. Those who are considering whether a flu vaccination is right for them should speak with their doctor.” Learn how to prepare yourself for the worst flu month each year.
Myth: Healthy people are less likely to get sick
“Strong immune systems are wonderful,” Dr. Ahrens says. However, he adds, even the healthiest body still needs to develop antibodies to the specific flu virus—and that won’t happen until it makes you sick and your immune system mounts a response to the invader. “Your natural immunity does not have natural antibodies for the flu virus,” he explains
“If you’re in good health, you don’t necessarily have antibodies to flu viral strains,” agrees Linda McIver, FNP-C, founder of 2U Medical, Inc. “Getting a flu shot is optional for healthy people; it can help you form antibodies against the most common flu viral strains of the season, which will keep you in good health.”
Myth: Antibiotics can fight the flu
People are still confused about this: The flu is a viral infection. Antibiotics are for bacterial infections. That’s why antibiotics can’t and shouldn’t be used to treat the flu. “Most of the illnesses that people get are viral, and in most cases, there are not any treatments,” Dr. Jacobson says. “There are some antivirals like Tamiflu that can be given to people who have the flu, but they must be treated within 48 hours of getting the disease.” Antibiotics are only helpful if you have an ear infection, pneumonia, or strep throat, she says.
Myth: If you have an egg allergy, you can’t get the flu shot
Numerous studies have analyzed this danger, says Kathleen Dass, MD, of the Michigan, Allergy, Asthma & Immunology Center in Oak Park, Michigan. They consistently show that the concern is overblown, Dr. Dass says. “In fact, in the CDC’s most up-to-date guidelines, they recommend receiving the influenza vaccine no matter what a patient’s reaction to eggs is.” She adds that if you’re still hesitant because of an egg allergy, there are two egg-free vaccines available—Flucelvax and Flublok. Read up on the 7 times you think you have the flu—but don’t.
Myth: Stomach flu is the same thing as influenza
They may share a name, but they’re not the same disease. “The stomach flu, also known as gastroenteritis, can be caused by many different viruses [and bacteria] and always causes gastrointestinal symptoms like diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting. You may still have a fever with the stomach flu,” Dr. Dass says. “The stomach flu is usually self-limiting, meaning it usually runs its course within a few days. It is rarely deadly. Influenza, however, can be deadly or lead to dangerous complications, such as pneumonia,” she explains. “Symptoms usually include fever, body aches, fatigue, cough, stuffy nose. You may have nausea or diarrhea with influenza, but the symptoms are much milder.”
Myth: Using a hand sanitizer will protect you from getting the flu
It will help, but the flu virus is transmitted by droplets that travel in the air. You could pick up droplets from surfaces—here’s where washing your hands could help—but you can also just breathe them in: “Hand sanitizer is helpful in reducing exposure, but it is not a fail-safe way to avoid the flu,” McIver says. “Handwashing with soap and water is the best way we can keep our hands clean. And above all, don’t touch your face.” Check out the 10 ways you’re washing your hands wrong.
Myth: The flu isn’t that bad
Remember that the virus can be fatal. During the 2012-2013 flu season, for example, more than 56,000 people died as a result of the flu. “Many people think they have the flu who just have a different viral illness commonly known as a cold,” says Joshua Scott, MD, primary care sports medicine physician at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, and team physician for the Los Angeles Galaxy. “The flu symptoms are usually much more severe and commonly include fever, body aches, and cough.”
Myth: The flu shot will guarantee you stay healthy
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Because it takes months to make enough vaccine for everyone, experts have to guesstimate which viruses will be making people sick during the season. Dr. Mark says experts review the flu strains that were most prominent during the southern hemisphere’s winter, consider data from previous flu seasons, and make a decision. But, Dr. Mark says, it’s really just an educated guess.
“People can absolutely get sick after getting a shot,” says Eugene Y. Park, MD, associate director of emergency medical services at CHA Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center. “The vaccine helps reduce risk overall by 40 to 50%.”
Myth: Getting two flu vaccines could boost immunity
If one is good, two is better, right? Nope: “There is no study that proves getting the flu vaccine twice helps boost your immunity,” says Rebecca Park, RN and founder of the natural health resource, RemediesForMe.com. “If the strains in the current flu shot are not the ones that are circulating, two shots won’t help.”
Myth: I will be protected by herd immunity
“Herd immunity occurs when enough people are vaccinated that a virus has little opportunity to spread. Effective herd immunity requires that more than 90% of the population be vaccinated against a disease,” says Tish Davidson, medical writer and author of Vaccines: History, Science, and Issues and The Vaccine Debate. “The exact percentage depends on the contagiousness of the disease, and flu is very contagious. With the current low flu vaccination rate, people should not count on herd immunity to protect them. It won’t.” Learn where the flu goes when it’s not flu season.
- Nature Reviews Immunology: “Fever and the thermal regulation of immunity: the immune system feels the heat.”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “How the Flu Spreads.”
- AARP: “Bug That Mimics Flu Poses a Threat.”
- National Institute on Aging: “All About the Flu and How to Prevent It.”
- Mayo Clinic: “Influenza (flu).”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Who Needs a Flu Vaccine and When.”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Summary of the 2017-2018 Influenza Season.”