To Your Health: Flu season myths and facts

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Flu season is right around the corner, which means it’s time to get your flu shot. So last Thursday, Mary and I both got our 2023 flu shot in one arm and our NEW Covid booster for both “original” Covid AND Omicron in the other arm. A little afternoon but not bad at all!

With COVID-19 and other potentially serious respiratory illnesses, like RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), circulating at the same time as the flu, getting your shot is as important as ever. And with so many misconceptions about the flu and flu vaccine, it’s a fitting time of year to review some new or typical myths and address them with some facts.

Since the advent of preventive measures to protect against COVID-19, some think wearing a mask, washing their hands and keeping distance from others will be enough to protect against the flu.

It’s true that these precautions we take for COVID-19 also lower our chances of getting the flu, because the two viruses are transmitted in similar ways, but they’re not foolproof. Fewer people are wearing masks these days, and as the weather cools, we’ll be heading inside for social activities, increasing our risk of getting the flu.

Respiratory droplets from just one cough or sneeze can infect you or someone else, so getting your flu shot is your best measure to protect yourself and others.

One of the most common misconceptions is that the flu shot will give you the flu.

It won’t. In fact, it can’t.

Made from dead virus that can’t make you sick, the flu vaccine is administered to help you build immunity. That’s why you might feel a bit under the weather after your shot — the vaccine has kick-started your immune system, and you’re experiencing a mild immune reaction that might include headache or muscle aches and should subside within a day.

As is true every year, getting your flu shot is the best way to prevent the flu.

When COVID-19 vaccines were new, the CDC recommended not getting other vaccines within a two-week window, before of after, getting the COVID vaccine. So, some may assume it’s not safe to get the flu shot if you’ve just had your COVID vaccine or booster.

We know now that it’s safe to get the vaccines at the same time. In fact, you can catch COVID and the flu at the same time, so getting both vaccines is your best chance at warding off dual infection and serious illness.

Another frequently heard myth is that healthy people don’t need to get a flu shot.

Even the strongest and healthiest among us can get the flu. The flu shot not only provides protection from getting the virus, but also reduces the severity of our illness if we do get the flu.

For those of us who might have chronic health conditions, the vaccine can prevent potentially fatal complications.

Everyone age 6 months and older should get their flu shot annually. There are a few exceptions to this guidance, but they include:

• People with severe, life-threatening allergies to an ingredient in a flu vaccine (the flu shot is safe for most people with egg allergies — there are even egg-free vaccines)

• People who have had a severe allergic reaction to a flu shot in the past

The flu shot is also safe, and highly recommended, for pregnant women, because they’re at higher risk of severe illness from the flu.

Finally, some folks think antibiotics will cure the flu if they get it.

They won’t.

Antibiotics are effective against bacteria, not viruses. No medication can cure or prevent the flu, but there are some prescription antiviral medications, like Tamiflu, that can help alleviate symptoms when taken within the first 48 hours after the onset of symptoms.

For most of us, the best way to recover is to rest, drink plenty of fluids and treat our symptoms. Remember, stay away from school or work to prevent spreading the virus to others.

And if you really want to reduce your chances of feeling awful this flu season, get your flu shot.

Don’t forget the Covid booster…more in another column, soon.


Dr. Alfred Casale, a cardiothoracic surgeon, is chief medical officer for surgical services for Geisinger and chair of the Geisinger Heart Institute. Readers may write to him via [email protected]