The flu: debunking the myths

The train carriages full of people sneezing and blowing their noses signifies the start of flu season. Whilst the true season in the UK is between December and March, it always helps to be prepared early. The flu is a highly infectious disease, and the symptoms can come on very quickly. Whilst lots of people catch colds and sniffles, the flu can be serious and does kill; last year’s flu epidemic killed 15000 people, an increase from the previous years 8000. As such it is becoming increasingly important that people take the flu seriously and jump at the chance to have a flu jab if offered one. Given how rotten you can feel with the flu and how dangerous it can be, you would think that people would be scrambling to get their vaccine. So why is it that only 73% of over 65s and 48% of under 65s (in at-risk groups) take up the offer for a flu jab every year? I suspect there are a few myths floating around which prevent people from embracing their annual jab and I plan to dispel these.

Myth: I need antibiotics to cure the flu
Truth: Time and time again, I have patients come to my clinic with the flu, asking me to prescribe antibiotics. My response is always the same- The flu is caused by the influenza virus which infects the respiratory tract, antibiotics are the treatment for bacterial infections and therefore they will not work. If you have symptoms like a sore throat, runny nose, sneezing, coughing, chills and muscle aches, and are being confined to your bed, you likely have the flu. Going to see your GP for antibiotics is not only a waste of your time and desperately needed energy but is also increasing the risk that you will spread it to the other patients in the waiting room. So, we kindly ask that if you have the flu, you recuperate at home with plenty of rest, fluids and TLC, and only come to the surgery if you are concerned that you are not improving or certainly if worsening.

Myth: The flu vaccine gave me the flu
Truth: When I offer my patients the flu vaccine, this tends to be one of the most common reasons that patients decline it, and I often need to explain that the flu vaccine is made from an inactivated virus, which means it can’t transmit or cause an infection. Most people have a slightly sore arm after the vaccination or in some cases feel a little tired and develop a low-grade fever, headache and muscle aches, but this should only last 1-2 days. If you get symptoms of the flu after having the vaccine, it is not because of the vaccine, but you probably already caught the flu before you had the vaccine, or because it takes 1-2 weeks to start working, you may have caught it after.

Myth: The flu vaccine doesn’t work
Truth: The flu virus can change every year and it can therefore be difficult to predict the virus type that will be circulating the next year, so there is always a risk that the vaccine does not match the circulating virus. We know that in the seasons were the vaccine matched the virus, that it reduced the risk of having to see the doctor with the flu by 40-60%, and research also shows that it reduces the number of hospitalisations, and the number of people dying and being admitted to ICU. Last year’s flu vaccine provided good protection against some of the strains but not all of them. So to further protect us this year we are recommending a vaccine that protects against additional strains as well as offering a new booster vaccine. Whilst our flu vaccine is not perfect, it does work, and it is still the best defence we have against the flu.

Myth: I never get the flu so I don’t need to bother with the vaccine
Truth: This can be answered in two parts. Firstly, I encourage you to practice preventative medicine, where the old phrase “prevention is better than cure” rings true. Why risk getting the flu and having to treat the flu, if we have the tools to prevent it? The second part is more altruistic, because we must think about those most vulnerable around us. Some people may catch the flu but only suffer mild symptoms and they are strong enough to get through it somewhat unscathed, or indeed some can even carry the flu virus and not even be sick at all with it, but during that time they can still be spreading the flu to other people. So the flu jab is not only about protecting yourself but also about making sure no harm comes to those around you.

Myth: I am pregnant, so the vaccination may harm my baby
Truth: Quite the opposite is true, in fact the flu vaccine can protect your baby from illness both indirectly and directly. There is evidence to state that pregnant women have an increased risk of developing complications if they catch the flu, like pneumonia or bronchitis which is of course detrimental to your baby, potentially being born prematurely, with a low birthweight or even stillbirth. It is safe to have the vaccine at any stage of pregnancy, so by getting the vaccine you are protecting yourself, and by proxy your baby. But the flu vaccine can also protect your baby directly as it offers protection against the flu virus in the first few weeks of your baby’s life during a period when it would be too young to have vaccinations

So when you receive that call from your GP inviting you in for your vaccination, jump at the chance to protect yourself and others.