Scared of getting sick with the flu—or just sick of the entire swine-flu hullabaloo? It's easy to feel a little of both after months of H1N1 headlines dominating the news. To preserve your sanity as well as your health, it helps to sort the facts from the fables that have circulated about the world's first pandemic flu in more than 40 years. Here are seven of the most common myths health experts are trying to dispel.
I AM HEALTHY, I DO NOT NEED TO WORRY
It's true that most people infected with the new H1N1 virus have recovered fully without medical treatment. But this virus continues to show disturbing differences from run-of-the-mill flu viruses. First, it didn't disappear over the summer. Historically, such persistence is a warning sign that a colossal fall and winter wave is in store. Second, this virus has caused more severe illness in those under 25 than in those over 65 years of age (the population that typically suffers some of the most serious cases of seasonal flu). That's an indication that being in good health doesn't assure protection against serious—even deadly—complications.
For these reasons, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to urge everyone to protect themselves by practicing good health hygiene (see "The (Swine) Flu Stops Here") and getting immunized when the H1N1 vaccine becomes available.
IT IS INEVITABLE, BETTER TO GET IT OVER WITH
Heard of swine flu parties? They are gatherings centered on deliberately catching H1N1 influenza from someone with a relatively mild case. Some people have concluded that this is a smart way to protect against a more severe infection caught down the line. Others may see catching swine flu as inevitable and simply want to control when they get it.
Both are wrong-headed approaches, according to the CDC. First, there's no way to predict the course of anyone's infection. The same flu virus that causes mild illness in one person can cause severe illness and dangerous complications in another. Second, there is no predicting how the H1N1 virus will mutate in the months ahead. Yes, it could become more dangerous. But it could also become less so.
I AM IMMUNE BECAUSE I'VE HAD IT
This is, in fact, true, but only if you were truly infected with H1N1. The problem is that few people are tested to identify the virus strain that made them sick. Your infection may have been an "ordinary," or seasonal, flu. Even bad colds are often mistaken for flu. So even if you've been sick with a flu-like illness, the CDC recommends you still take steps to protect yourself.
VACCINE GUARANTEES PROTECTION
The H1N1 vaccine should reduce your risk of becoming infected. But no flu vaccine guarantees protection. Historically, even the best seasonal flu shots have provided only 70 to 90 percent protection, according to the CDC. The good news is that even if you still get the flu, you'll have a lower risk for complications. Also early studies are showing H1N1 vaccines to be more effective than conventional flu shots, since it is more specifically targeted—with greater than 90 percent protection against this strain of the virus.
To reduce that final 10 percent of risk, continue practicing good infection-control habits. You know the drill: Wash hands often, avoid infected persons when you can, and be sure to get enough rest and drink plenty of fluids.
THE VACCINE CAN GIVE YOU THE FLU
This is the same misconception that has long dogged seasonal flu vaccines. In part, it may stem from the fact that some people are already coming down with the flu when they get vaccinated. Others may mistake a bad cold (a different virus) as a consequence of their flu shot.
In fact, the H1N1 vaccine—like all flu vaccinations—is prepared from bits of weakened or destroyed viruses. They can't cause flu. But a vaccine can spark a slight fever and feelings of achiness, a sign that your immune system is responding to it.
ANTIBIOTICS CAN HELP
Fortunately, doctors today know better than to prescribe antibiotics for viral infections such as the flu. Antibiotics target bacteria, not viruses. Unfortunately, confusion tempts some people to dip into stashes of old antibiotics.
Don't do it, the experts concur. Not only are antibiotics ineffective against the flu, they can have unwanted side effects. What's more, their overuse can breed drug-resistant bacteria in your body and the environment.
IF I FEEL OKAY, I AM NOT INFECTIOUS
People with the flu usually don't know it for the first 24 hours. During that time, they can spread the contagion. In addition, they remain infectious for around 24 hours after their temperature returns to normal without fever-reducing medicine. What's more, a lucky few never develop fever or severe symptoms and, so, may not realize they're infected and infectious.
This means that everyone needs to be practicing good hygiene (cleansing hands frequently and sneezing into a tissue or upper sleeve) even when they feel fine. And don't rush yourself or family members back to work or school too soon.