UW News

September 28, 2011

Flu myths: Hear what UW Medicine doctors have to say

UW Health Sciences/UW Medicine

A lot of misinformation surrounds the flu.

Two UW Medicine experts, Dr. Timothy Dellit, medical director, Infection Control, Harborview Medical Center, and Dr. Estella Whimbey, medical director, Infection Control and Employee Health, UW Medical Center, debunk some common myths.

UW Medicine general surgeon Dr. Rebecca Petersen gets her annual flu shot.

UW Medicine general surgeon Dr. Rebecca Petersen gets her annual flu shot.Leila Gray

Flu Myth: #1 You can get Guillain-Barre syndrome after being vaccinated for the flu.

Dr. Dellit: Aside from the 1976 flu season, there has been no increased association between influenza vaccines and the development of Guillain-Barre.  The estimated risk for Guillain-Barre is at most one additional case per 1 million people vaccinated.  More recent studies have shown that the risk of Guillian-Barre is four to seven times higher following influenza infection than after vaccination.

Flu Myth #2: “Stomach flu” is a form of influenza.

Dr. Whimbey: The term “stomach flu” is often used to describe illnesses associated with nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. These symptoms can be caused by many different viruses, bacteria or even parasites. While nausea, vomiting and diarrhea can sometimes be related to the flu, these symptoms are rarely the main symptoms of influenza. Influenza is a respiratory disease and not a stomach or intestinal disease.

Flu Myth #3: Antibiotics can fight the flu.

Dr. Dellit: Most people who contract  the flu do not require treatment with antiviral medications. However, people with underlying medical conditions or who experience more severe symptoms should be evaluated for possible treatment with an antiviral medication such as oseltamivir (or Tamiflu). Because the flu is caused by a virus, antibiotics such as penicillin are not effective in treating the flu.

Flu Myth #4: Swine flu is transmitted by pork products.

Dr. Whimbey: Swine flu viruses are not transmitted by food, so a person cannot get swine flu from eating pork or pork products. Eating properly handled and cooked pork products is safe.

Flu Myth #5: Its not safe for me to be vaccinated if I have a cold.

Dr. Dellit: You can get the flu vaccine at the same time you have a mild respiratory illness, such as a cold, as long as you dont have a fever.

Flu Myth #6: You can skip years between flu vaccinations.

Dr. Whimbey: There are two reasons for getting a flu vaccine every year:

  • The first reason is that, because flu viruses are constantly changing, flu vaccines may be updated from one season to the next to protect against the most recent circulating viruses.
  • The second reason is that a persons immune protection from vaccination declines over time and annual vaccination is needed for optimal protection against influenza, regardless of whether the viruses in the vaccine have changed or not since the previous season.