Myths About The Flu You Need To Stop Believing

Influenza (the flu) is a contagious respiratory infection caused by viruses that affect the nose, throat, and lungs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the flu affects up to 8 percent of the United States population yearly.

The flu can cause mild to severe symptoms and in rare cases, it can be life-threatening. Symptoms of the flu include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, fatigue, and sometimes, vomiting and diarrhea. The flu is different than the common cold because of its severity, especially for high-risk groups, including older adults and people with chronic diseases.

If you have ever had a bad case of the flu, you know just how sick it can make you. And there's a good possibility you have gotten advice from well-meaning family and friends about avoiding or managing the flu that isn't exactly accurate. Keep reading to find out about the most common myths about the flu, including the flu shot.

Myth: You can get the flu from the flu shot

The flu shot is given with a needle that contains an inactive virus. The flu vaccine can also be given via a nasal spray, which contains a weakened live virus. "It takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies to develop in the body and provide protection against influenza virus infection," the CDC explained.

It's important to know that neither the flu shot nor the spray will cause you to get the flu. However, the flu shot may cause some mild side effects, including soreness or redness in the area where the shot was given, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed. Some people might experience minor muscle aches, a mild fever, or a runny nose after getting a flu shot. The nasal spray, on the other hand, may cause a runny nose, wheezing, headache, vomiting, muscle aches, fever, a sore throat, or a cough, according to the CDC. These side effects are usually short-lived and mild.

Myth: Healthy people don't need flu vaccines

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends everyone six months and older get vaccinated every year against the flu. Being young and healthy isn't enough to protect a person from the flu, even if they have never had the flu.

The flu is known for causing serious complications, including pneumonia, bronchitis, and ear infections. Some of these complications, especially pneumonia, can be life-threatening and could result in death. These complications are especially dangerous to young children, pregnant women, older adults, and people with chronic illnesses.

Since no one is immune to the flu and flu strains frequently change, you need to get a vaccine each flu season in order to protect yourself, according to the CDC. Additionally, immunity to the flu declines after some time so it's not a one-and-done situation. You will also want to get the flu shot to protect others in your community. By not getting a flu shot, you can spread the flu to vulnerable people, including young children and the elderly, who have a higher risk for flu complications.

Myth: The flu isn't that serious

Anyone can get the flu and that's part of what makes it so dangerous. In the 2019-2020 flu season, the CDC reported around 22,000 deaths from the flu. During that flu season, more younger children (ages 0-4) and adults (ages 18-49) got the flu than in the previous season.

Dr. Alan Taege, infectious disease specialist, told the Cleveland Clinic that the flu is a severe and contagious illness that should be taken seriously. "For those who have never had influenza, it's difficult to understand how much worse it is than a typical cold," Dr. Taege said. "Influenza makes you much more ill — higher fevers, profound body aches, much more fatigue — and, consequently, it's a much more severe disease."

If you do become sick with the flu, it is important to stay home so you don't spread the virus around. You should also see your doctor, follow their treatment advice, and take any prescribed medications. Make sure you get lots of rest and stay hydrated. You may consider taking over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen and ibuprofen to manage pain and fevers.

Myth: I've never had the flu, so I must be immune

Flu viruses are constantly changing. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these changes allow the virus to affect the immune system. This means people will be vulnerable to the flu throughout their lives. And even if people who get the flu develop antibodies to the flu virus, flu strain changes mean old antibodies will not recognize the new virus, and you can get sick with a new flu strain. Plus, people who have never had the flu don't have any antibodies to prevent the flu or reduce its effects. However, it is more than likely you have had the flu and don't recall.

Believing you are immune to the flu and don't need a flu vaccine is a common myth, Dr. Bilal Naseer, an infectious disease specialist and critical care doctor at CommonSpirit Health in Carmichael, California, told Livestrong. Sometimes, people can be infected with the flu and not have symptoms, or they can have only mild symptoms. He continued, saying, "They are very capable of transmitting to others, which is another really important reason to get the influenza vaccine."

Myth: I got the flu vaccine and got sick anyway, so it doesn't work

The flu vaccine offers the best protection against the flu, but it is still possible to get the flu after vaccination. One reason might be that you were exposed to the virus before or right after you were vaccinated, and it takes up to two weeks to develop immunity.

Another possible reason you might still get sick is because flu viruses mutate. And a new strain might not be included in a new vaccine so the flu shot might not offer full protection, according to the CDC. But while you might still get the flu, having had a flu vaccine could mean you are less likely to have serious complications. In fact, studies have shown that being vaccinated against the flu can reduce severity of the flu should you become sick with the virus (via the CDC).

Lastly, the flu shot won't protect you from other respiratory illnesses that might be mistaken for the flu. This includes rhinoviruses, which are linked to the common cold and cause similar symptoms to the flu (via Cleveland Clinic). Rhinoviruses can spread during flu season.

Myth: Pregnant women shouldn't get the flu vaccine

The CDC has previously reported that only one-third of pregnant women are getting flu shots. This is partially because there is confusion about whether flu vaccines are safe for pregnant women and their unborn babies. 

However, pregnant women and their unborn babies are at high risk for the flu and are more likely to develop serious complications from it, the CDC confirmed. And research on the flu in pregnant women has found that influenza can be harmful to a developing fetus. Pregnant women who develop the flu are at higher risk for hospitalization from pneumonia and other flu complications, according to a 2020 review from researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. This review also found that babies of mothers severely affected by the flu have an increased risk for fetal growth problems, miscarriage, and preterm birth.

According the CDC, "Flu vaccination is safe during pregnancy." And pregnant women should receive flu shots. In fact, flu shots have been given to millions of pregnant women safely for decades and have offered protection from the flu for pregnant mothers and their unborn babies.

Myth: You can't spread the flu if you don't feel sick

It is entirely possible to pass the flu to other people before you show symptoms or if you don't have symptoms and appear to be feeling well. According to the CDC, most healthy adults can infect others with the flu beginning one day before symptoms begin, and they continue to be contagious up to a full week later, even if they no longer have symptoms.

Researchers know that asymptomatic flu cases can still be contagious, but they are not entirely sure why, an article published in Public Health Reports explained. According to the report, it's thought that asymptomatic individuals can shed viral particles when breathing, thus spreading influenza.

The flu is highly contagious and can spread from person to person through the air. It can also live on surfaces for hours, according to the National Institute on Aging. So if you catch the flu and feel even mildly sick, keep your distance from friends and family. Let them know you are sick and that you don't want them to catch the flu from you. You shouldn't go to work, and sick children should stay home from school.

Myth: You can avoid getting the flu just by washing your hands a lot

The flu virus lives on everyday objects that are frequently touched, such as doorknobs and handrails. You can easily touch a germy surface and, without even realizing it, touch your mouth, nose, or eyes. And it won't be long before you are feeling awful.

While simple hand-washing with soap can be very helpful, the single best way to prevent the flu is by getting vaccinated, according to the CDC. Still, you should wash your hands often and correctly to help prevent the flu. Per the CDC, washing your hands is especially important during key times when you are more likely to get sick and spread germs, including while preparing food, before and after eating, when caring for a sick person, and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.

Proper hand washing includes five simple steps: Wet hands with clean running water and apply soap. Lather hands by rubbing them together with soap. Lather the backs of hands, between fingers, and under nails. Scrub for at least 20 seconds. Finally, rinse hands under the running water, and dry hands with a clean towel or let air dry.

Myth: If you have the flu, you're going to need antibiotics

Antibiotics can treat bacterial infections, but they aren't effective against viruses like the ones that cause the flu. As such, the Cleveland Clinic does not recommend antibiotics for treating colds and the flu.

If your doctor has ever prescribed you an antibiotic while you had the flu, it is likely because they thought you had a secondary bacterial infection, such as pneumonia or strep throat. But using antibiotics for infections that don't need those medicines can make antibiotics less effective for treating infections in the future.

While having a fever is a good indicator that you're unwell, it cannot tell you what is making you sick, the Cleveland Clinic explained. And while fevers are signs of infection, infections can either be viral or bacterial. Your doctor will prescribe an antibiotic only if they suspect the latter type of infection. Otherwise, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication to help treat your symptoms.

Myth: You need to feed a cold and starve a fever

"Feed a cold, starve a fever" is an old saying that dates back centuries. The idea was that illnesses related to low temperatures need to be fueled so eating was recommended, and illness caused by high temperatures, like a fever, need to be cooled or starved, Intermountain Healthcare explained.

However, doctors these days recommend plenty of rest and fluids to help you get better from a cold or flu. With the flu, the main treatment is to allow the immune system to do its job. The immune system needs proper nutrition and hydration to do that, though. According to Healthline, "It's probably best to eat when your stomach can handle it and to go light on food when it can't. Either way, it's important to drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated."

This can, of course, be a challenge when you are sick because you might not have an appetite. If that is the case, you don't have to stuff yourself. Try to focus more on staying well hydrated. It is also a good idea to avoid caffeine and alcohol when you are sick because both can make dehydration worse, per Healthline.

Myth: Going outside with wet hair or without a coat causes the flu

The flu is caused by a virus, which means you cannot catch it from going outside with wet hair or not being dressed warmly enough in the winter. And although running out the door with wet hair or skipping the coat isn't recommended for obvious reasons (brr), these habits won't make you more susceptible to influenza unless you become hypothermic, according to Health (via Bustle). In reality, the flu is spread from person to person. According to the National Institute on Aging, you can catch the flu by being near someone with the flu who sneezes or coughs.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explained that the flu can be spread to others up to six feet away. This is because flu viruses are spread mostly by droplets from coughing, sneezing, and talking. Droplets can land near the mouth or face of another person or can be inhaled into the lungs. While possible, you are less likely to get the flu by touching a surface or object and then touching your face, nose, or eyes and more likely to get it from another person.

Myth: You don't need the flu shot every year

While you might assume that the flu shot is the same each and every year, this isn't true. Since flu strains are constantly changing, vaccines need to be reviewed and updated annually. Last year's flu vaccine was designed to protect you against last year's virus, but it won't be completely effective this current flu season.

The CDC recommends a flu vaccine every flu season for another reason: Your protection from the flu vaccine declines over time, so an annual vaccine offers you the best protection. So when should you schedule your flu shot? Harvard Medical School recommends getting your flu shot early on in the flu season, starting in October. If you forget or are unable to get the flu shot that early, you can still get the vaccine through January and get the protection you need. Nevertheless, getting the flu shot in the fall allows the vaccine time to kick in and protect you throughout the duration of flu season.

Myth: If you have the flu, you'll know it

While you may think you'd know it if you had the flu, this isn't always the case. In fact, figuring out the cause of your symptoms isn't always as easy as it sounds. In 2014, NPR reported on a study out the University College London in which researchers found up to three-quarters of people who had the flu had either mild or no symptoms. "[The] flu is more common than we thought, but often less severe than what we had thought," Andrew Hayward, an epidemiologist at University College London and the study's lead author, explained.

Hayward shared that people often mistake the flu for the common cold. "A lot of the time you may just have a runny nose, a bit of a cough, perhaps a sore throat," he said. "The study shows that [typical flu symptoms like body aches and fever] very often doesn't happen," he continued. "And it's often a much more mild illness."

Myth: COVID-19 and the flu are essentially the same

COVID-19, aka the novel coronavirus, was identified by the Worldwide Health Organization in 2019. It can trigger a serious respiratory tract infection that may affect both the upper tract (sinuses, nose, and throat) and the lower tract (windpipe and lungs).

During the 2020-2021 flu season, both the flu and COVID-19 are circulating, according to the CDC. One of the biggest misconceptions about these two illnesses is that they are essentially the same. But COVID-19 and the flu are caused by different viruses. And while they share some symptoms, symptoms appear at different times and COVID-19 has symptoms that are unique, such as loss of taste or smell. COVID-19 is also more contagious than the flu and can spread more quickly than the flu, per the CDC. Although the two viruses can result in similar complications (like pneumonia and respiratory failure), the mortality rate for COVID-19 is much higher than that of the flu.

Additionally, the flu vaccine is not the same as the COVID-19 vaccine, and vice versa. However, one study did find that the flu vaccine may be able to lessen the severity of COVID-19, should you get it (via UF Health). Of course, more research is needed and regardless, experts recommend you receive both the flu shot and, when available, the COVID-19 vaccine.

Myth: Natural immunity is better than vaccination

This is one of those myths that contains a grain of truth, but a lot of people are jumping on that one grain of truth and thus completely missing the point. Yes, certain papers, including one in Nature and another one in Lancet Microbe, have noted that natural immunity to the flu appears to be more robust and longer-lasting than vaccine-induced immunity. But if the goal is to avoid infection, then natural immunity utterly fails to meet that goal, because it requires infection before it can be achieved. Remember, immunity doesn't really mean anything to a corpse.

Also, influenza isn't like chickenpox or measles, where you get it one time and you're protected forever. Flu viruses are constantly mutating (via the CDC), which lets them evade both natural and vaccine-induced immunity. The strain you got last year probably wasn't the same as this year's dominant strain, so natural immunity does nothing except protect against that rare possibility you might one day encounter the exact same flu strain. So on a granular level, yes, getting sick with the A/Hawaii/70/2019 (H1N1)pdm09-like virus protects you against that virus for longer than a vaccine would. But if next year's dominant strain is the B/Washington/02/2019 (B/Victoria lineage)-like virus, then you'd have to also get sick with that virus in order to be fully protected against getting sick with that virus, and so on and so forth until the end of time.

Myth: The flu vaccine has major side effects

The flu vaccine had been around since the 1940s. In fact, according to the CDC, the method used to manufacture flu vaccines hasn't really changed that much since the first shots were distributed to the broader public in 1945. This long history of influenza vaccination means we have more than 75 years of data on flu vaccine effectiveness and side effects. Literally billions of vaccine doses have been distributed during that time, which means if the vaccine caused major side effects, it would be painfully obvious not only to health authorities, but also to the rest of us.

The flu shot almost never causes major side effects. During the 2010 to 2011 flu season, for example, the CDC reports that 163 million doses of flu vaccine were distributed in the United States, and about 8,200 adverse events were reported. Most of those events (93%) were not serious. "Serious" reactions were reported in 604 cases, which means "major side effects" were only reported for about .0004% of all flu shots given during that season.

During that flu season, there were also 28 reports of death. But before you jump to conclusions: Those deaths occurred around the same time as someone's flu shot, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they were caused by the flu shot. In fact, according to the report, there was no evidence to suggest a link between any of the deaths and vaccination.

Myth: The flu vaccine can put you at risk for other health issues

One of the major (unfounded) fears about vaccination of any kind is that it could put you or your kids at risk for a variety of health issues. The autism-MMR link is one example of this fear — it still persists today, even though it has been completely debunked many times over. Some people also worry that the ingredients in vaccines might actually have the opposite effect on your immune system, making you more prone to illness rather than more resistant to it.

Back in 2012, there even seemed to be some evidence confirming this. Research published in Clinical Infectious Diseases suggested that getting a flu shot might make you more vulnerable to other respiratory viruses. The study compared the rates of non-flu respiratory infections in a group of 115 vaccinated and unvaccinated children, and determined that there were more non-flu respiratory infections in the vaccinated group. Since that study was published, however, follow-up research has failed to confirm its results. A much larger study published in 2013, for example, concluded that there was no difference between the incidence of non-flu respiratory viruses in people who had received the flu shot vs. people who had not.

Myth: If you don't get your flu shot early in the flu season, you might as well skip it

Flu season usually peaks in December and lasts until March (via the CDC). After you get the vaccine, it takes about two weeks for your body to build up the antibodies you need to fight the flu virus (via the CDC), and a 2017 study published by Clinical Infectious Diseases also found that your immunity wanes by roughly 8% each month following the flu shot. This makes timing the shot somewhat of an art form. If you get it too early in the season, you might be more vulnerable to the flu later on, before the season starts to wind down. And if you wait too long to get the shot, well, you might as well not get it at all ... right?

Actually, the CDC says that as long as the flu is still circulating, it's never too late to get the shot. The flu season starts to wane in March, but flu virus is still circulating even as late as May, which means it's possible to avoid the flu all year long and then come down with it just as you're getting ready for swimsuit season.

Getting vaccinated late isn't ideal, mostly because it means you'll be playing flu roulette during the holidays. But it's far better to be protected for half of the flu season rather than none of it.

Myth: Nausea and vomiting are the primary symptoms of the flu

Colloquially, the word "flu" is used to describe two completely different illnesses. "Flu" is a shortened version of the word "influenza," which is a virus that causes respiratory symptoms such as a cough, stuffy nose, sneezing, etc. When doctors talk about "flu," they mean influenza.

But "flu" is also used to describe a completely unrelated illness, though people do sometimes add the word "stomach" to differentiate. "Stomach flu" is not the same thing as influenza — according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, stomach flu is often caused by a norovirus, which is far less dangerous than influenza, but arguably much more miserable. Influenza doesn't usually cause gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, all of which are symptoms of norovirus. When someone says they're home sick with the flu and then goes on to describe their toilet-side vigil, they're not talking about influenza.

It is worth noting that a few people who get influenza may have nausea and vomiting alongside their respiratory symptoms (via the CDC), but this is more common in children than in adults. And it's also important to note that these symptoms don't tend to occur in isolation — if you or your child have nausea and vomiting as a primary symptom, it's a lot more likely to be norovirus than influenza.

Myth: If you've had the flu you don't need a flu shot

Let's say you were unfortunate enough to come down with the flu in October, before you had a chance to get your flu shot. Does this mean your bout with the flu can serve as a stand-in for a jab at your local pharmacy?

Not really. In fact, no matter how epic your struggle with influenza was, no matter how triumphant you were as you returned from the brink, it's still possible for you to come down with the flu again, before the flu season winds down in the spring. How is this possible? Because the flu strain you got sick with was only one of the many strains circulating that year, and your bout with it only protects you from getting reinfected with that particular strain.

A flu shot, on the other hand, typically protects you from four different strains of the flu (via the FDA). Which four depends on a consensus of healthcare professionals, who get together early in the year and try to make educated guesses about which flu strains are going to be the troublemakers that season. Sometimes their guess is right, sometimes it's wrong, and sometimes the flu throws everyone a curve ball by mutating. But generally speaking, the flu shot offers more protection than getting sick does, so you should get vaccinated regardless of how sick you were or how sure you were it was the flu.

Myth: You should not get the flu shot if you have major health problems

If you have major health problems like heart disease or diabetes, you may be tempted to avoid getting a flu shot, for fear that it could be difficult for your body to process. Diabetes and certain medications, for example, can make your immune system weaker, which may make you wonder if the flu vaccine is safe for you.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, the immunocompromising nature of diabetes is precisely the reason why you should get a flu shot. That's because if you have diabetes — even if you're managing it well — you're at much higher risk of developing serious flu-related complications like pneumonia. Getting the flu could also weaken your immune system even further, which might also make you more susceptible to severe disease if you were unlucky enough to get COVID-19 after recovering from the flu.

Likewise, the American College of Cardiology says people who have previously had a stroke or have heart disease are at greater risk of death from the flu. In this group, the flu can place added strain on an already weakened heart. It could even cause a heart attack.

The CDC recommends a flu vaccine for everyone over the age of six months, except those who have had a severe allergic reaction to the shot or a known allergy to one of its ingredients. For everyone else, the flu vaccine is still the best way to stay influenza-free.