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Know the facts, prevent the flu

This year’s flu is making headlines—and not good ones. The 2018 flu season is especially bad.

Estimates say that 15 million people in the U.S. may have the flu. This year’s flu is a particularly nasty strain, and this year’s flu shot about 37 percent effective against H3N2, the most common strain circulating this season. 

“The flu is not something to take lightly, especially not this year,” said Geisinger infectious disease specialist Alison Marie Brodginski, DO. “Take preventive steps to avoid the flu. If you do get the flu, see your doctor. If your doctor confirms it is the flu, stay home to avoid spreading it.”

But just as the flu spreads, so too do the myths about it. Every year there are flu myths that can put people at risk and keep them from protecting themselves.

Here are the facts on five of these flu myths. 

Myth: “This year’s flu shot is not effective.”
No vaccine is 100 percent effective. And while it’s true that this year’s flu shot is less effective than the average, that doesn’t mean it is totally ineffective.

There are many different flu viruses, and they are constantly changing. The composition of U.S. flu vaccines is reviewed annually and updated to match circulating flu viruses. Flu vaccines protect against the three or four viruses that research suggests will be most common. 

“The flu shot is still the number one way to prevent the flu,” said Dr. Brodginski. “The flu changes every year, so the flu shot has to, also.”

Despite the reduced efficiency, this year’s flu shot can still prevent the virus. And if you still get the flu, it can help shorten the duration of the illness. 

You cannot get the flu from the flu shot because it contains either a deactivated form of the virus or even no virus at all.

Myth: “Prescription medications only work within 48 hours.”
No medication can completely stop or prevent the flu. However, doctors can prescribe antiviral medications to lessen the symptoms.

Oseltamivir, a prescription antiviral drug that can lessen the symptoms of the flu, works best if taken within the first 48 hours of flu symptoms. 

However, your doctor may still prescribe it even if it’s been more than 48 hours. Studies from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) show that oseltamivir has benefits after the first 48-hour window and that it can prevent potentially life-threatening complications like pneumonia. 

If your doctor prescribes medications for the flu, take them as directed.

Myth: “It’s too late to get a flu shot.”
While experts recommend getting a flu shot by the end of October, it’s never too late to get a flu shot.  

“If you haven’t gotten the flu shot yet, you should,” said Dr. Brodginski. “The flu shot can give you a fighting chance, no matter how late in the season you get it. That may be especially helpful this year since it’s possible the flu season may stretch into April.” The flu shot help prevents multiple strains of influenza. 

The flu shot takes approximately two weeks to reach full effectiveness, so it is still possible to get sick in that timeframe.

Myth: “You can get the flu by going outside with wet hair.”
No matter how cold it is outside, you can’t get the flu from the weather. 

The flu is passed through coughing and sneezing. You can also get the flu by touching your eyes, nose or mouth after coming in contact with the flu virus.

However, cold weather is a factor in the spread of the flu. Cold weather dries out the air and makes it easier for viruses and bacteria to spread, which is why flu season starts in the winter. 

Myth: “If your symptoms get worse, you’ll need antibiotics.”
Antibiotics only work on bacteria—and the flu is a virus.  

“Antibiotics are completely ineffective against the flu,” said Dr. Brodginski. “However, if you get another infection while you have the flu, antibiotics may be necessary to stop the second infection. If your doctor prescribes an antibiotic, be sure to take the full course of medication.”

In some cases, the flu can turn into something more dangerous. This is especially common for children under five and adults over 65. If you experience trouble breathing, dizziness, rapid heartbeat or a very high fever, seek emergency medical attention.

Dr. Alison Brodginski is an infectious disease specialist at Geisinger. 
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