Flu myths debunked

Dr Yolande Louw (General Practitioner, Intercare Silver Lakes)

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We are heading towards this year’s flu season – or rather ‘crazy season’. This time of the year is filled with great myths and mystery (or rather misery) caused by flu. Quite a number of people belief in home remedies, a post on Facebook, or something they read on a blog, rather than solid, evidence-based medicine. Let’s clarify a few myths about flu or influenza.

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, i.e. within hours. A cold usually develops over the course of a few days and progressively gets worse. In the words of Prof. 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

A favourite myth! Despite spending exuberant amounts on supplements, disappointed souls that still get sick may ask: “But doctor, I don’t understand! I took a high dose of vitamin C every day! Why am I sick?” Harvard Medical School published an article on this subject: “How to boost your immunity during flu season”. Their conclusion was that 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 5 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 2 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. No live viruses here! It’s so safe, in fact we also give it to pregnant woman and babies older than 6 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 3 different strains in our vaccines, but some of the northern hemisphere vaccines contain 4 different strains.

Myth 6: 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. In other words ladies: your big baby lying on the coach, moaning and groaning, feeling very sorry for himself might actually feel that way due to his very manly high testosterone levels!

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