Four Myths You've Been Told About The Flu

October 26th 2015

Laura Donovan

Actress Gwyneth Paltrow recently came under fire for suggesting in an Instagram post that going to the sauna on #fluday5 might help cure her case of influenza (the flu). Paltrow is usually mocked for being out of touch, but this photo was particularly alarming to many because it contributes to the high number myths about the flu.

"[I]n order to follow [Paltrow's] treatment plan, most people would be leaving their homes to venture to a public place, spreading their multiple bodily fluids in the confined space of a steamy sauna," Slate writer Alexandra Sowa wrote. "[H]ealthy adults may be contagious as soon as one day before symptoms develop and up to five to seven days after becoming sick. So even on #fluday5, when someone may feel well enough to venture out to a public space to undergo a sauna treatment, she can still be a vector of disease."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains that, "'[f]lu season' in the United States can begin as early as October and last as late as May." Bogus information about the flu is everywhere, so it's important to know how to stay healthy. Here are a few myths about the flu:

Myth 1: The flu is merely a really bad cold.

While the flu can have similar symptoms to the common cold, the flu can be much more severe. According to the CDC, the flu causes "millions of illnesses, hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations and thousands of deaths every season." In 2013, the New York Times reported that an estimated 36,000 people die per year from flu-related complications. More than 200,000 are hospitalized each year due to the flu.

The common cold is no picnic, but the flu is particularly worrisome and dangerous.

Myth 2: If you don't have symptoms, you aren't contagious.

Not all symptoms are severe, and some people don't experience symptoms at all; this can prompt them to go about their daily routines as usual rather than home to keep others from getting sick.

If your co-worker has the flu but comes to work anyway because he/she seems to be feeling OK, avoid this person if you can. According to Harvard Health Publications, up to 30 percent of people carrying the flu have no symptoms. Pneumonia, which kills 53,282 per year, develops five days after the flu virus and can pose serious complications to one's health.

Myth 3: The flu vaccine means you can't get the flu.

Just because you got the flu shot doesn't mean you're out of the woods. Research shows it's still important to wash your hands as much as possible and avoid those who have the flu.

In that same vein, it's also a myth that the flu vaccine actually gives people the flu. According to Harvard Health Publications, the vaccine can take up to two weeks to kick in, so the people who get sick after the vaccine were already going to get sick.

"The [flu] vaccine is made from an inactivated virus that can’t transmit infection," Harvard Health Publications states. "So people who get sick after receiving a flu vaccination were going to get sick anyway. It takes a week or two to get protection from the vaccine. But people assume that because they got sick after getting the vaccine, the shot caused their illness."

Myth 4: You only need to get the flu shot once.

You might think you're forever in the clear because you got a flu shot a few years ago, but chances are, your protection has worn off since then. In fact, the CDC recommends an annual flu vaccine for almost all people older than 6 months of age, "even when the viruses the vaccine protects against have not changed from the previous season." The CDC explains:

"A flu vaccine is needed every season for two reasons. First, the body’s immune response from vaccination declines over time, so an annual vaccine is needed for optimal protection. Second, because flu viruses are constantly changing, the formulation of the flu vaccine is reviewed each year and sometimes updated to keep up with changing flu viruses. For the best protection, everyone 6 months and older should get vaccinated annually."

The immunity you receive from the vaccination fades overtime, so a yearly vaccination will give you optimal protection against the flu.

Need a flu shot? Use the HealthMap Vaccine Finder on the American Lung Association's website to find a local place to get the vaccine.