What to Know as Flu Season Nears Peak

  • Many people are misinformed about the flu, often underestimating the dangers of influenza and skipping the vaccine, according to a recent survey.
  • Up to 31 million people in the United States have gotten the flu this year and around 370,000 have been hospitalized.
  • The vast majority of flu illnesses this year have been caused by an irregular strain, B/Victoria.

It may seem like we’ve been in the thick of flu season for months now, but in actuality we’re just nearing the peak.

Up to 31 million people in the United States have gotten the flu this year, around 370,000 have been hospitalized, and thousands have died — 78 of them children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) latest estimates released Friday.

The vast majority of flu illnesses this year have been caused by an irregular strain, B/Victoria, which is known to cause a more severe illness in children.

In the past few weeks, however, A strains have picked up, triggering a second wave of the flu that could linger until late spring.

Even though we see influenza strike year after year and claim the lives of thousands of people, many people are misinformed about the flu, often underestimating the dangers of influenza and skipping the vaccine, according to a recent survey from the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP).

Here are the most common misconceptions people have about the flu:

Myth 1: You’re more likely to get the coronavirus

People have been on edge about the new coronavirus, but in reality, your chances of contracting the flu and experiencing life-threatening complications are much higher.

To put this into perspective, 12 people in the United States have been diagnosed with coronavirus in 6 states — none of whom have died.

The flu has killed at least 12,000 people so far (though that number may be closer to 30,000), and is widespread in 48 states plus Puerto Rico.

“The news coverage and the mass hysteria over coronavirus makes it more of a topic of conversation, and even though it’s true that we don’t understand it fully yet, we do know that currently, influenza is much more of a problem than coronavirus,” said Dr. Adrian Cotton, the chief of medical operations at Loma Linda University Health.

Myth 2: The flu isn’t that dangerous

The flu is no mystery to us — we see it each and every year. That may be why the threat of the influenza has worn off.

The coronavirus is novel and foreign, and largely a mystery to infectious disease experts. For the most part, we know what the flu is, what it looks like, and how to treat it.

But that doesn’t mean it’s less of a threat.

About 10 percent of adults don’t think the flu is that serious, the AAFP survey reported. This is even more pronounced in men: 73 percent of men involved in the survey underestimated how many people died from the flu last year.

The flu shot is more than the sniffles and a few days in bed. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people are hospitalized and approximately 35,000 die.

“Many people do not see or have not experienced bad cases of flu personally,” said Dr. Alexa Mieses, a practicing family physician in Durham, North Carolina, noting this may cause them to underestimate the severity of the flu.

Myth 3: The flu shot isn’t that important

The AAFP survey found that about 51 percent of adults reported they hadn’t gotten the flu shot yet this year.

Vaccination rates are even lower among millennials: 55 percent said they hadn’t been vaccinated and 32 percent of them said they don’t plan to.

So, how come around half of U.S. adults reported being unvaccinated? People commonly cite mundane reasons, like not having enough time or they simply forgot.

Young people may feel somewhat invincible, Mieses suspects, or a healthy person may not feel the need to get vaccinated.

“Many are not into the idea of receiving an annual vaccine, and they may believe the annual need is a testament to it being ineffective, which is wrong,” Mieses said.

Myth 4: The flu shot can give you the flu

The subpar vaccination rates are likely also a result of the anti-vaccination movement.

The anti-vaccine movement, which has spread incorrect health information about vaccines, has caused a major gap in knowledge, according to the AAFP.

Twenty-one percent of adults were afraid the shot would make their children sick with the flu.

You cannot get the flu from the vaccine. Why? Because the vaccine is made from an inactivated virus, or a small piece of the virus, which is incapable of causing an infection.

People who get sick after the shot were getting sick anyway — the timing just synced up.

“My patients often tell me they think the flu vaccine can cause the flu — which is 100 percent false,” said Dr. Natasha Bhuyan, a practicing family physician in Phoenix, Arizona.

If you do feel crummy after the shot, you’re likely feeling your immune response, according to Mieses. Again, this isn’t the flu but just means the flu shot is working.

Myth 5: If the vaccine is a miss, there’s no point getting it

One thing often overlooked is that even if the flu shot misses the mark and isn’t a 100-percent match to the strains going around, it can still help reduce the severity and duration of your symptoms if you do get the flu.

It can also help prevent severe complications from developing, and keep you protected from any other strains that pop up throughout the flu season, as there’s usually more than just one that strikes.

“Those who get the shot are more likely to have protection against a future flu strain as opposed to those who do not,” Cotton said.

Myth 6: It’s too late to get the shot

Lastly, you may think the window to get vaccinated is closed, but you’ve still got time.

The flu can often trickle into late spring — to May, even June — so if you get vaccinated now, you’ll be protected for the next few months.

“Even getting the flu shot now can give you some protection. We are seeing an increase of influenza A cases recently,” Bhuyan said.

Getting vaccinated is still the best protection we have against the flu. And when you get vaccinated, you protect not only yourself, but those around you — especially those with a higher risk of experiencing complications.

The bottom line

A recent survey found that many Americans are misinformed about the flu.

About half of U.S. adults aren’t vaccinated, and many people tend to underestimate the dangers of the flu.

On top of that, people assume they’re more likely to contract the new coronavirus, but their risk of contracting the flu is much higher.

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