Myth 1: The flu shot can give you the flu.
Real talk: Because it contains an inactive version of the virus, it’s impossible for the shot to infect you, says Dr. Peter Shearer, M.D., director of emergency medicine at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. (FWIW, the same goes for the nasal flu vaccine, which contains a weakened version of the live virus, although it was not recommendedfor use in the U.S. during the 2017-18 flu season due to its limited effectiveness.)
Coincidence may be responsible for this confusion: Vaccine side effects can include flu-like symptoms such as low-grade fever, headache, and muscle aches, according to the CDC. What’s more, people tend to get vaccinated in the fall and early winter — when other respiratory illnesses, like the common cold, circulate and are often mistaken for the flu, Dr. Shearer says. Another thing: After getting the flu shot, it can take two to four weeks for it to reach its full protective potential, Dr. Shearer says — so if you’re exposed to the virus within that window, you’re SOL.
If someone insists they got the flu from their shot, just laugh and tell them how the vaccine really works: It activates your immune system, super-charging your cells so they’re ready to circulate flu-fighting antibodies when you’re exposed to a live virus similar to the inactive version in the shot.
Myth 2: This year’s flu shot doesn’t work.
Real talk: Because the flu virus is constantly evolving, and the vaccine’s composition is changed every year to protect people from pathogens that are predicted to spread in any given season, according to the World Health Organization, no flu vaccine is 100 percent effective, Dr. Shearer says. This year, he adds, it’s estimated to be about 30 percent effective — lower than previous years with 40 to 60 percent effectiveness, according to the CDC. But even if this year’s shot doesn’t shield you from infection entirely, it still stimulates your immune system, so your symptoms will be less severe, and you’re less likely to suffer from complications than you would be without any protection, according to the CDC.
Myth 3: Flu season is basically over, so you don’t need the vaccine.
Real talk: Although seasonal outbreaks can happen as early as October and tend to peak between December and February, flu activity can last as late as May, according to the CDC. In other words, it’s definitely not too late to get your shot, according to Dr. Shearer. “You’re not just protecting yourself, you’re protecting your whole family, since the likelihood of contracting a flu virus and infecting someone in your house or community is much smaller if your whole family is vaccinated,” he says.
Myth 4: Supplements can stop me from getting sick this season.
Real talk: Actually, the only thing that preps your immune system to fend off the flu is vaccination. “Zinc was never shown to protect people from the flu,” Dr. Shearer says, debunking Cold-Eeze lozenges. Vitamin C won’t help, either, since it’s only proven to shorten the common cold (sometimes). “Take it if you want,” Dr. Shearer says of supplements marketed to boost your immune system, “but you’re better off gargling with tea to keep your mouth and throat moist.” The strategy may have antiviral effects, according to a 2016 meta-analysis published in BMC Public Health.
Myth 5: The flu is only contagious when you have a fever.
Real talk: Actually, you can begin spreading the virus through droplets you release from the mouth or nose when you cough or sneeze 24 hours before your first symptom surfaces, according to Dr. Shearer. Thereafter, “if you have a fever, you have an active infection, and you’re shedding the virus,” Dr. Shearer says. Although you’re most contagious for the first three to four days of illness, according to the CDC, you remain infectious until your fever is gone for 24 hours.
Myth 6: Hives are a flu symptom.
Real talk: In January, a pre-teen boy who tested positive for the flu with no symptoms besides hives became the face of his mother’s viral PSA on viral rashes. However, Dr. Shearer says this isn’t characteristic of influenza, as the boy’s mother, who’s a nurse, implied. “There is no specific rash specifically linked to the flu,” Dr. Shearer says, adding that patients may actually develop this rare, but possible side effect from taking an over-the-counter pain reliever they’re sensitive to while treating actual symptoms of the virus.
Myth 7: If your flu test is negative, you don’t have the flu.
Real talk: Although some hospital labs have the ability test for the flu virus itself with better accuracy, most doctors rely on rapid influenza diagnostic tests that are less reliable because they work differently: This test involves a nasal or throat swab that flags flu-fighting antibodies, which circulate in response to virus exposure, according to Dr. Shearer. The swab is convenient and takes less than 15 minutes, but has a high false-negative rate, according to the CDC — particularly when administered several days after the onset of symptoms.
“It’s not a perfect test,” Dr. Shearer says. “If it’s negative, you could still have the flu, or, if you have a scratchy throat and fever, you could have a strep infection, so your doctor should follow it up with a strep culture.”
Myth 8: The flu kills.
Real talk: You’ve probably heard stories of otherwise healthy adults dying within days of a flu diagnosis. Although it’s true that, in rare cases, you can die from the virus itself if you become massively dehydrated or experience severe respiratory issues, according to Dr. Shearer, most “flu” deaths actually result from infections that occur simultaneously, such as bacterial pneumonia, and other complications linked to the body’s inflammatory response, which can include sepsis and multi-organ failure, according to the CDC. “The more things you’ve got going on, the less equipped you’ll be to fight off infection,” Dr. Shearer says — particularly if you’re older or have a pre-existing condition, such as chronic heart disease. “If you have a high fever, body aches, a sore throat, and a cough, it’s probably just the flu,” he says. “But if you have a high fever and you’re not improving in two to three days, or getting worse, seek treatment.” If you experience a decrease in urine output, shortness of breath, or any new symptoms, make it stat, he adds.
Myth 9: Tamiflu is the only thing that cures the flu.
Real talk: When you take the antiviral prescription drug within 48 hours of your first flu symptom, “Tamiflu can decrease the severity of the infection, reduce its duration by about one day, and possibly decrease the virus’s ability to spread to other people,” Dr. Shearer says, citing evidence of its effectiveness. “But without Tamiflu, your immune system can fight the virus off on its own.”
The CDC only recommends antiviral treatment for high-risk flu patients or for those with severe complications. That’s because when the influenza infects an otherwise healthy person, it only replicates until your immune system kicks in and circulates enough antibodies to shut the virus down. “It can take a few days to build up a vigorous immune response,” Dr. Shearer says — but in the absence of complications, it will happen, eventually.