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Top 13 Flu Myths

What’s the truth about the flu, and what’s myth?
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Myths about the flu are everywhere. According to many experts, misconceptions and rumors about the flu are as hard to contain and as hard to fight as the virus itself. 

“There are urban myths and rural myths about the flu,” says William Schaffner, MD, chairman of the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University’s School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn. “Flu myths are everywhere.”

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Unfortunately, flu myths are common even among the people who should know better, like health care workers. Given that influenza can be serious and even fatal, it’s crucial that we all know what’s fact and what’s fable. So as a public service, and with the help of some flu experts from around the country, WebMD helps you debunk the top 13 flu myths.

Flu Myth #1: The seasonal flu is annoying but harmless.

There has been a lot of focus on swine flu, but it’s important to remember that the run-of-the-mill seasonal flu can be a serious condition itself. “A lot of people just think of the flu as a very bad cold,” says Curtis Allen, a spokesman for the CDC in Atlanta. But it’s much worse than that.

For one, you usually feel terrible.  In addition to the congestion and cough, you’re apt to have nasty body aches and fever, which are less likely with a garden-variety cold. “When you get the flu, you know it,” says Christine Hay, MD, assistant professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center. “You feel like you’ve been hit by a Mack truck.”

Aside from the short-term misery and lost workdays, flu can have more serious implications. Sure, most people who get the seasonal flu recover just fine. But the seasonal flu also hospitalizes 200,000 people in the U.S. each year. It kills between 3,000 and 49,000 people. That’s close to the number of women killed by breast cancer each year, and more than twice the number of people killed by AIDS.

Flu Myth #2: Swine flu is transmitted by pork products.

Lots of people reacted to the swine flu outbreaks by swearing off bacon -- just as some countries reacted by banning pork or slaughtering pigs. But experts say that despite the name, there’s no reason to worry about pork products spreading swine flu. You can't get the flu from eating pork.

Flu Myth #3: The flu vaccine can give you the flu.

This is the flu myth most likely to drive experts bonkers. “There is simply no way that the flu vaccine can give you the flu,” says Hay. “It’s impossible.”

Why? For one, injected flu vaccines only contain dead virus, and a dead virus is, well, dead: it can’t infect you. There is one type of live virus flu vaccine, the nasal vaccine, FluMist. But in this case, the virus is specially engineered to remove the parts of the virus that make people sick.

Despite the scientific impossibility of getting the flu from the flu vaccines, this widespread flu myth won’t die. Experts suspect two reasons for its persistence.  One, people mistake the side effects of the vaccine for flu. While side effects to the vaccine these days tend to be a sore arm, in the past, side effects often felt like mild symptoms of the flu. Two, flu season coincides with a time of year when bugs causing colds and other respiratory illnesses are in the air.  Many people get the vaccine and then, within a few days, get sick with an unrelated cold virus. However, they blame the innocent flu vaccine, rather than their co-worker with a runny nose and cough.

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