12 Cold & Flu Myths

There’s never a convenient time to catch a cold or flu. Avoiding these viruses starts with knowing which “facts” about them are true, and which aren’t. Here, we set the record straight.

Myth #1: The flu vaccine causes the flu.

The viruses contained in flu shots have been inactivated, which means they can’t cause infection. The nasal spray flu vaccine does contain weakened live viruses, but shouldn’t cause the flu, despite possible flu-like symptoms some people may experience. 

Myth #2: You can catch a cold from getting cold.

Only a cold virus causes a cold. So why do we catch so many colds in the chillier months? Proximity. People generally spend more time indoors, closer together and come in contact with coughing and sneezing more.

Myth #3: You should avoid dairy when you’re sick.

Phlegm is the thick, sticky mucus in your throat when you have a cold. Consuming milk products may make phlegm thicker, but won’t increase its production.

Myth #4: If you don’t have a fever, you’re not contagious.

Most healthy adults are contagious one day prior to symptoms and for five days after that, with or without a fever. Some young children may be contagious for longer than a week.

Myth #5: Your cold could turn into the flu.

The flu and the common cold are caused by different viruses. So a cold can’t morph into the flu. If you or your child develops the flu, it was caused by a flu virus in the first place. Generally, the flu is worse than a cold, with more intense symptoms such as fever, body aches, tiredness and a dry cough. 

Myth #6: The flu just isn’t that serious.

Most people who get the flu will have a mild case and will fully recover in less than two weeks. But make no mistake: Complications from the flu can be deadly. An average of 36,000 people die each year from the flu, and more than 200,000 are hospitalized. 

Those at higher risk for flu complications include children under 5, adults over 65, pregnant women and those with chronic illnesses. Visit a doctor or the emergency room if you have any concerns about pneumonia or dehydration.

Myth #7: Staying away from sick people is the only way to stay well.

Staying away from sick people is one way to help avoid getting sick, but it’s not foolproof. After all, people can be contagious without showing any symptoms (see Myth #4). Experts point to the flu vaccine as the best preventive measure against the flu. Until you or your child can get vaccinated—or if you choose not to—washing hands regularly will help avoid both a cold and the flu.

Myth #8: If you get the flu, you’ll be immune after that.

Although you immediately become immune to the particular flu virus you contracted, you could still contract a different flu virus.

Myth #9: If you hate shots, you can just get the nasal spray instead.

The nasal mist flu vaccine is approved by the FDA for use in healthy people 2 to 49 years old who are not pregnant. Those who are not eligible include:

  • People at high risk for complications, including those with chronic heart disease, asthma, kidney or liver failure or weakened immune systems.
  • Children younger than 5 years old with a history of recurrent wheezing.
  • Children or adolescents receiving aspirin.
  • Pregnant women.
  • People who have a severe allergy to chicken eggs or who are allergic to any of the nasal spray vaccine components.

Consult your doctor about your medical history before deciding which vaccine is best for you.

Myth #10: If you don’t get a flu shot by January, it’s too late.

Flu season often peaks in February but can extend all the way into the month of May. Because no one can accurately predict when the flu virus will hit for the last time, as long as the vaccine is available, it’s not too late to get it.

Myth #11: Getting vaccinated every year isn’t necessary.

Flu viruses change from year to year, and the immunity that is built up from having the flu one year doesn’t always provide protection when a new strain is circulating. Last year’s vaccine may not protect against the newer viruses. 

Myth #12: Flu meds will help clear up my cold too.

Flu antiviral drugs work only against flu viruses. They won’t help reduce symptoms from the common cold or any other flu-like illnesses. 

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