With the influenza season just around the corner (set to start in April/June and continue into August/September), people need to understand truth about the flu and what they can do to reduce the risk of getting it.
“This time of the year is filled with great myths and mystery (or rather misery) caused by flu,” says Dr Yolande Louw, general practitioner at Intercare Silver Lakes and a member of South African Society of Travel Medicine & Federation of Infectious Diseases of South Africa. “Quite a number of people believe in home remedies, a post they see on Facebook, or something they read on a blog, rather than solid, evidence-based medicine.
“The first step in keeping you and your loved ones flu free is to learn the truths about this common and often misunderstood disease.”
Myth 1: Flu is just a bad cold
The words: “Doctor, I have the flu”, is often heard in the doctor’s consultation room, but when asked when the fever started, the patient often doesn’t have an idea.
Influenza is an acute and possibly deadly viral disease that almost always presents with a fever. It may also be accompanied with an airway infection or even diarrhoea. The clue here is acute onset, which can happen within hours. A cold, however, usually develops over the course of a few days and progressively gets worse.
In the words of Professor Robert Green, paediatric pulmonologist at the Steve Biko Academic Hospital, “call a cold a cold”.
Myth 2: Antibiotics can cure flu
Antibiotics receive a lot of undue credit. Unfortunately, many people belief that if you feel sick, an antibiotic will kill the culprits.
The fact is that antibiotics only kill bacteria and not viruses. As flu is caused by the influenza virus, it is therefore a mayor disappointing medical fact that antibiotics will not cure your flu or cold.
We know that flu is sometimes complicated by secondary bacterial infections, but taking an antibiotic when you start with acute fever and body aches will not prevent a possible secondary infection.
Myth 3: I can boost my immunity by taking supplements
Truth is you can’t boost your immunity; you can only maintain the one you have. You can achieve this by sleeping enough, not smoking, regular exercise, lowering your stress levels, drinking enough water and by following a healthy balanced diet.
You only need to take a supplement if you feel that you’re not getting enough vitamins and minerals through your diet. Although vitamin C is the most commonly used supplement, studies have shown that the only people who really benefit from vitamin C supplements, in preventing and even curing a cold or flu a few days sooner, are endurance athletes.
So, unless you are training for the Comrades or Iron Man, don’t waste your money. And no, going to the gym five times per week, doesn’t make you an endurance athlete. The best way to prevent influenza is still to get a yearly flu jab.
Myth 4: I don’t get the flu vaccine, because it makes you sick
This is the oldest complaint in the book, and also the main reason why patients decline flu vaccines.
The flu vaccine can cause a mild immune response (mild fever, headache and body pains for two days), but definitely can’t let a patient become sick. It doesn’t break down your immunity, or cause you to be more susceptible to other infections. The vaccine can’t lead to a patient getting the flu because it’s a dead vaccine. It’s so safe; in fact we also give it to pregnant woman and babies older than six months.
Myth 5: You don’t need a flu shot every year
Flu vaccination leads to an immune response, which is unfortunately a waning immunity. In other words, as time goes by, you lose the ability to react to viruses well enough to prevent infection.
Another reason for getting a fresh vaccine every year is because the strains or the types of the virus in the vaccine differ from year to year. Scientists do extensive research to determine which strains are expected to have the biggest impact in the coming flu season. A lot of southern hemisphere’s data are changed and corrected following the flu season in the northern hemisphere and vice versa.
In South Africa, we only have three different strains in our vaccines, but some of the northern hemisphere vaccines contain four different strains.
Myth 6: You can only pass on flu when you have all the flu symptoms
You may be able to pass on the flu to someone else before you know you are sick, as well as while you are sick. Most healthy adults may be able to infect others beginning one day before symptoms develop and up to five to seven days after becoming sick.
Some people, especially young children and people with weakened immune systems, might be able to infect others for an even longer time.
Myth 7: There is really something like man flu
This is a highly controversial subject – it’s long been suggested that males do get affected by flu symptoms more than the fairer sex. Interestingly, this might not be a myth after all. Studies done and published by Stanford University in 2013 found that men usually don’t have the same response to the flu vaccine than women, making them more prone to contracting flu. Due to a reaction with testosterone, they might also get worse symptoms if they do get influenza.