Dread it all you want, but there's no escaping flu season. Every year, like clockwork, it returns: a miserable six-month stretch defined by sniffling, sneezing, a sore throat, and all-over achiness. Brace yourself, because the flu is expected to strike by October, and the vaccine is already arriving at doctors' offices and other clinics.
As anyone who's been sidelined by flu knows, it's as contagious as it is unpleasant. The flu typically spreads via a respiratory route: We catch it and then breathe the virus onto others. "If someone gets in your breathing zone—within about three feet—they'll likely inhale it and get infected too," says William Schaffner, chair of Vanderbilt University's department of preventive medicine. "The tricky part is that you won't start to experience symptoms for about three days, but at day number two you're already spreading it to your friends."
With all those germs comes lots of misinformation. We bust eight common myths about flu season:
The flu is no worse than a bad cold. Au contraire, it can be downright dangerous. Yes, there's the standard congestion, cough, body aches, and fever. But there are more serious complications, too, like developing pneumonia and other secondary bacterial infections. Flu lands around 200,000 people in the hospital every year, and kills an estimated 30,000 Americans annually.
You can catch the flu from the flu shot. "No, no, a thousand times no," Schaffner says. The vaccine can cause flu-like symptoms, including headache or even a slight fever. But it won't actually cause the flu—it's made from a dead virus that can't make you sick, after all. Yet many people swear they get flu right after being vaccinated. That's because the flu shot is typically given as respiratory viruses are already circulating, so it only makes sense that some people will catch a bug right away. It takes about two weeks after getting the shot to develop immunity.
Ow. The flu shot hurts. Not necessarily. If you're nervous, opt for a nasal spray or an intradermal vaccine, which uses a shorter needle and is injected just under the skin instead of into the muscle. "It's a much milder option for those who are needle adverse," Schaffner says.
Cold weather causes the flu. Not true. "Cold weather and exposure to rain and [dampness] will certainly make us miserable, but will not cause the flu or even the common cold," Schaffner says. "It's everybody's grandmother's favorite notion."
Vomiting is par for the course when you have the flu. Not unless you have the "stomach flu," as it's commonly called, which is actually caused by an entirely different virus. The very contagious norovirus brings stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting. "Calling it the stomach flu is a misnomer," says Philip Tierno, a clinical professor of microbiology and pathology at the NYU Langone Medical Center. Influenza itself won't cause stomach pain or vomiting.
Antibiotics are necessary to get better. False—these only fight bacterial infections. Since the flu is caused by a virus, antibiotics won't help. However, antivirals like Tamiflu can lessen sick time and symptoms if they're taken within the first 48 hours of being infected. "That's a pretty tough thing, because most adults who get the flu don't start thinking about going to the doctor until day three," Schaffner says. That's why doctors typically tell patients whose underlying conditions—like diabetes—hike their risk of developing flu complications to call the office the moment they start feeling sick during flu season. "The doctor will phone in a prescription for Tamiflu," Schaffner says. "It's a very sensible way to proceed."
After getting vaccinated, all you can do is hope for the best. Actually, there's plenty you can do. Wash your hands frequently and use a disinfectant to wipe down any shared spaces. If you notice that someone is sniffling, stay about 10 feet away and politely decline shaking hands with or hugging that person, Tierno suggests. And take care of yourself: Getting enough sleep, exercising, and eating a healthy diet will keep your immune system strong, helping to fend off germs.
Only high-risk folks need the flu shot. False. Everybody needs it. The government recommends that all Americans 6 months and older get vaccinated. It's particularly important for young children, older people, and those with weakened immune systems. "Sometimes the vaccine isn't a perfect match, but at the very least, it provides partial protection," Schaffner says. "That's very important because it keeps a mild illness from turning into a serious one. We see gravely ill people coming into our ER and being sent to the intensive care unit because they weren't vaccinated. If they had been, they might have been at home miserable—but they wouldn't have been on a stretcher or [been] put on a ventilator."