UAB Medicine News


Stopping the Spread of Flu ... and Rumors

Having easy access to flu shots is half the battle in combating the influenza virus. The other half is understanding the seriousness of the matter. During peak cold and flu season, viruses spread at an alarming rate. Unfortunately, erroneous information and even longstanding myths associated with these illnesses can spread even faster.

Stopping the spread of viruses is a challenge in a large population, but ending rumors shouldn’t be so difficult in an age of information. Think of these viruses as the enemy in a war, and regard the misconceptions as a disinformation campaign.

To that end, the following incorrect notions are debunked in order to end many rumors about colds, flu, and pneumonia:

The flu shot isn’t very effective in preventing the illness. 

For the 2018-2019 flu season, the CDC estimates that vaccinations prevented some 4.4 million illnesses, 58,000 flu hospitalizations, and 3,500 flu deaths.

I never get a flu shot, and I’ve had the flu the last three years in a row, but at least I have built up my immunity.

That would make you immune only to the particular strains of flu you have already suffered. While it is unlikely that you will get the same flu in February that you had the previous fall, you do not develop a long-term immunity to the influenza virus. Different strains of the flu virus mutate over time and replace the older strains of the virus.

Almost everyone in my office has the flu, but this must be a very mild strain, because the symptoms are very mild and no one was sick for longer than a few days.

It is likely that your co-workers did not have the influenza virus. Many other viruses can also cause flu-like symptoms (also known as influenza-like illness or “ILI“) that spread during the flu season. These non-flu viruses include rhinovirus, which may cause the “common cold“. A cold can lead to bronchitis and other serious conditions such as pneumonia.

I didn’t shake hands with any co-workers who had the flu, I haven’t kissed my sick child, and I did not drink after my ailing spouse, so I’m safe.

Those precautions are effective and necessary, but not preclusive. Most research suggests that flu viruses are spread from particles that become airborne when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks. That means that particles that land on surfaces, skin, and clothing may be unwittingly transferred to mouth and eyes, leading to infection. Furthermore, recent research shows that the smallest droplets from coughs and sneezes are so tiny (less than 10 microns in diameter) that they can remain suspended in air much longer — and travel greater distances — than previously believed. This increases the chance of inhaling contaminated air in an office space, an elevator, an airplane, or even classrooms and waiting rooms.

I have been near several people with the flu this week. As soon as I start having symptoms, I will avoid family and friends so they won’t be contaminated by me.

It is possible to transmit the virus to others for as early as 36 hours before any symptoms show. In fact, it is actually likely that infected persons will pass along the flu during this stage, because their misconception makes them less cautious. And because no symptoms are present, no one near them feels any reason to be cautious. If you are in close proximity to anyone who has a cold or flu virus, consider yourself a risk to others and exercise as much precaution as possible, no matter how you are feeling.

The aches and fever came on very quickly, but I will stick it out through the weekend to see if it is just a cold before visiting a doctor.

Sometimes a cold can feel like the flu, but don’t gamble during flu season. Remember F.A.C.T.S. (fever, aches, chills, tiredness, and sudden onset). Those are usually signs of flu, not a common cold. Sudden onset is the best clue. If you felt mild aches and fever when you woke up, and by lunch time those and other symptoms have hit you like a freight train, you should see a health care professional immediately. There are prescription antiviral medications that can diminish the severity and duration of the flu. Those medications are most effective when given within the first 48 hours. For people with chronic medical conditions, that could spare them a hospital stay.

The last two times I had the flu, I did not have any sinus or respiratory symptoms, but I was very sick to my stomach.

That means you did not contract a strain of influenza virus. You had a stomach bug instead. There’s no such thing as the “stomach flu”.

Spring is here, the days are warm and sunny, and flu season has ended.

Flu season begins roughly in October and often runs to late April.

I missed my chance to get a flu shot last fall, so I will just hope for the best. We are past the peak season anyway.

CDC data show that since 1982, flu activity peaked five times in January, 14 times in February, and six times in March. Flu season can run to almost May. So even mid-winter is not too late to get a flu shot.

The flu vaccine isn’t very effective for elderly people.

While the protection elderly adults obtain from flu vaccination can vary significantly, a yearly flu vaccination is still the best protection currently available against the flu.

There are limited data to suggest that flu vaccination may reduce flu illness severity, so while people who are vaccinated may still get infected, their illness may be milder. That’s important, since people age 65 and older are at higher risk of getting seriously ill, being hospitalized, or dying from the flu. Even if the vaccine provides less protection in older adults than it might in younger people, some protection is better than no protection at all – especially in this high-risk group.

This group includes people who are healthy and active and have responsive immune systems, as well as those who have underlying medical conditions that may weaken their immune system, and therefore, their bodies’ ability to respond to vaccination.