It seems you can't go anywhere these days without hearing "the flu this" or "the flu that." Unfortunately, this season's influenza outbreak is one of the worst in years. And it's not just the flu virus that's causing problems; there are also many myths about the flu that are keeping people from doing more to prevent it. Mayo Clinic infectious diseases and vaccine expert Gregory Poland, M.D., dispels some of the most common:
Myth No. 1: Flu vaccines can give me the flu
False. Injectable flu vaccines are composed of pieces of inactivated flu proteins -- and it's impossible for them to "cause" flu. The nasal spray vaccine has live flu organisms weakened so they cannot multiply or cause disease.
Myth No. 2: Flu shots never work anyway, so why bother?
Also false. When there is a good match between the viruses causing disease and those in the vaccine, protection is excellent in otherwise healthy people. Protection is lower if you are unhealthy or in the frail elderly group. But vaccines are like seat belts: They are not perfect but they are the best protection we have against serious injury and death.
Myth No. 3: Flu vaccines are dangerous, especially for pregnant women
Also false. Concerns about pregnant women getting vaccinated began when women were advised not to get any kind of vaccination during pregnancy, Dr. Poland says. Today's flu vaccines are safe for expectant mothers and highly recommended. A recent large study demonstrated significant increases in maternal death among unvaccinated women infected with influenza. However, because they have not been studied in pregnant women, pregnant women should stay away from nasal flu vaccines, which do contain live, weakened flu virus, Dr. Poland says.
Myth No. 4: It's too late to get vaccinated
Again, false. While it's always better to get vaccinated before flu season begins -- it can take about two weeks for the vaccination to take full effect -- it's never too late to get a flu vaccine, Dr. Poland says. Even if you didn't get vaccinated and caught the flu, get a flu vaccine to protect yourself against the other strains that are circulating, Dr. Poland says.
Myth No. 5: It's just the flu. What's the big deal?
Once again, false. While it might be "just" the flu, Dr. Poland says we should still be concerned, regardless of our age or physical condition. In an average year, up to 40,000 Americans die from influenza and its complications, and over 250,000 are hospitalized. Millions are sick, miss school, work, and important events and spend money on over-the-counter "cold remedies." Complications and death are particularly frequent in infants and young children, those with chronic medical conditions, the elderly, pregnant women and people who are obese. Health care providers also should get immunized to prevent spreading flu to vulnerable patients, Dr. Poland says.
"No one should confuse influenza with a "minor illness." Serious complications and death result every year due to flu. Vaccines, while imperfect, offer the best protection available for you and your family, as well as others you come in contact with," says Dr. Poland, the Mary Lowell Leary Professor of Medicine and director of the Vaccine Research Group at Mayo Clinic.
Dr. Poland offers these tips for sidestepping illness:
*Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently with soap and warm water or alcohol-based hand sanitizer, particularly before leaving a restroom, eating or touching your face. Wash your hands for about 20 seconds, about as long as it takes to sing "Happy Birthday." When visiting a public restroom, use a paper towel to turn off the faucet and open the door when leaving.
*Keep your vaccines up to date: Besides the seasonal flu shot, the most important ones include the MMR vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella and a relatively new vaccine called Tdap, for tetanus, diphtheria and acellular pertussis, or whooping cough.
*Don't smoke: It can make you more susceptible to illness in general.
*Be an advocate for your health: If someone near you is ill, move away or ask to be reseated, if you can. If a server's hands touch your food or the rim of your glass, don't be embarrassed or hesitant about asking for a new serving or moving on and eating elsewhere.
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