Myth busters: The Flu

Debunking myths and setting the record straight about flu season

By Susan Tulino

We’re often too quick to assume the dreaded influenza virus is to blame for any wintertime sick days.

Flu is a likely suspect for any wintertime illness. The reason? Many of us don’t actually know much about the flu.

Frederick W. Parker, III, MD, M.Ed, a family medicine provider at Novant Health UVA Health System Bull Run Family Medicine – Manassas helps us set the record straight about the flu by debunking some common misconceptions.

Myth #1: The flu is just a bad cold

Reality: Body aches, runny noses and sore throats can be signs of either the cold or the flu, but if you do have the flu, expect these symptoms to be much more dramatic and last longer. Symptoms of the flu can include fever, cough, congestion, chills, severe fatigue, body aches, headaches, sore throat, nausea and vomiting. These symptoms come on quickly, last up to a week and are often severe.

“Nearly 100,000 Americans are hospitalized with the flu each year,” said Dr. Parker. “It can become life-threatening, particularly in infants, elderly patients and those with compromised immune systems. Even if you aren’t in these groups, it’s important to see a doctor if you show signs of dehydration, have a fever of 103 degrees or higher and are experiencing difficulty breathing, severe dizziness or persistent vomiting.”

A cold, on the older hand, manifests in fewer, more mild symptoms and typically goes away in about a week.

Myth #2: Flu season is only during the winter

Reality: There’s a reason you see pharmacies and doctors’ offices promoting flu vaccines even before summer has ended. Flu season generally begins in November but can start at any point in the fall or winter and peak any time between December and March. In fact, in March of 2019, the Virginia Department of Health reported that Virginia was still classified as having widespread flu activity for the 11th straight week.

“While we strongly encourage patients to get their vaccinations early, the reality is that getting a flu shot in March is better than not getting a flu shot at all,” said Dr. Parker.

Dr. Parker also advised that the “summer flu” is a very real thing and the virus can strike even when the weather is hot. People who travel internationally should always pay close attention to any symptoms that appear since the flu peaks in different parts of the world during different times of year.

Myth #3: Flu shots are ineffective and can make you sick

Reality: This is a common misconception because some people feel under the weather for several days shortly after receiving their flu shot. This is the body’s immune system reacting to the vaccine, which actually means it’s responding appropriately.

“It’s important to remember that the vaccine isn’t 100 percent effective in preventing the flu. There is still a chance of contracting the virus even with the vaccine, but some protection is always better than none,” said Dr. Parker. “There are multiple types of influenza, and each year, researchers create a new vaccine based on evidence of what the strongest strain is likely to be. If you are exposed to a strain that is different than the vaccine, you could still catch the flu, but your immune system will be stronger in fighting it.”

Myth #4: The flu is a 24-hour bug

Reality: People with the flu are typically ill for about a week but may only feel the worst of the symptoms for one day. This leads to the common misconception that the flu can come and go in just 24 hours. In reality, rallying from a bout with the flu will take more than just a day or two. Though nausea and other hard-hitting symptoms may subside or disappear, you’re likely to feel weak for several days.

“As much as you may want to get back to work, school or your day-to-day routine, letting your body rest and heal is an important part of recovering from the flu,” said Dr. Parker. “Having the flu affects the whole body and trying to get back into the swing of things too quickly can prolong the illness.”

With flu season upon us, all of us should take precautions against exposure to the virus – and unknowingly transmitting it before symptoms begin to show. Washing your hands frequently, coughing and sneezing into a sleeve or tissue and, most importantly, making sure to get the flu shot are effective ways to make it out of flu season unscathed.


The Expert: Frederick W. Parker, III, MD, M.Ed
His Expertise: Family Medicine
Frederick W. Parker, III, MD, M.Ed is a family medicine provider at Novant Health UVA Health System Bull Run Family Medicine in Manassas, a department of Novant Health, UVA Health System. For more information about the doctors and services offered at Novant Health UVA Health System, visit novanthealthuva.org.

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