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5 flu myths debunked

By Amy Cox
CNN
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(CNN) -- Centuries ago, people believed epidemics were caused by the stars' influence, thereby giving influenza its name.

Not many would believe that theory today, but myths about flu linger. As many Americans recover from a late peak in the mild flu season, take a look at five common flu myths and what science has to say about them.

Myth: You can catch a mild form of the flu from a flu shot.
Fact: "That is one of the most remarkable urban myths -- and it is a myth," says Dr. William Schaffner, professor and Department of Preventive Medicine chairman at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. "You cannot get flu from the flu vaccine."

Because it is made up of inactivated viruses, you cannot develop the flu from the vaccine. The most common side effect is soreness where the vaccine was injected, or a runny nose or scratchy throat for a day after the nasal vaccine. Recent research out of England suggests that exercising your arm muscle a few hours before a flu shot helps your body deal with the vaccine and enhances production of antibodies. (Gallery: How a flu vaccine works)

"That myth -- the anxiety over those vaccines -- really gets in the way of people getting a remarkably effective prevention," Schaffner says. "Even people with characteristics that predispose them to complications of influenza all too often don't get the vaccine because of this quite unfounded fear."

Myth: Bed rest is really the only treatment for the flu.
Fact:
Anti-viral drugs can help lessen sick time and symptoms if you take the prescription medicine within the first couple of days' onset of the flu, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Four anti-virals are approved for use in the United States -- amantadine, rimantadine, zanamivir and oseltamivir.

"If you're healthy and vigorous, the doctor may be less inclined to give you this treatment," Schaffner explains. "However, if you're a vigorous and healthy person coming down with the flu and you have the biggest business meeting of the year next week, I think you can say, 'I need all the help I can get, doc' and then the doctor might be inclined to treat you."

A new study suggests oseltamivir and zanamivir may also help reduce the spread of the virus within families. Published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, the study found those exposed to the virus who took the drugs were much less likely to become ill. (Interactive: How a superflu is born)

Myth: You can only catch the flu in cold weather regions.
Fact:
Flu knows almost no temperature or geographical boundaries. You should get vaccinated if you're traveling to the southern hemisphere April through September, for example, or if you're traveling to the tropics at any time, according to the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology. (Is your desk making you sick?)

Myth: You must get the flu vaccine before December for it to be effective.
Fact:
The U.S. flu season usually peaks between late December and early March, according to the CDC. But, "if you suddenly wake up in December and realize you haven't received your vaccine, get your vaccine. It's not too late," says Schaffner.

Although the best time to get vaccinated is September through November, before the peak season, getting the flu shot later can still provide benefits. It only takes about two weeks after vaccination for your body to produce the antibodies to ward off the flu, and offering you protection from a late-season peak. "We can keep vaccinating in December and even into January," Schaffner says. "And there are usually vaccine supplies left at that date."

Myth: Flu is not a major danger for healthy children over 5 years old.
Fact:
Schaffner says that parents shouldn't underestimate the dangers of flu for their kids. "Although most healthy children can 'throw off' influenza -- they will get through it perfectly fine -- we do have profound illnesses and, terribly sadly, even deaths from influenza in children," he says. "Influenza can attack a healthy child and put them in the intensive care unit within eight hours."

A CDC study this month showed that vaccinating kids 2 years old and older cut rates of infection in half. Federal guidelines now recommended that children 6 months to 5 years be routinely vaccinated against the flu. But Schaffner and other experts say to include children older than that, too. "We need to make parents much more aware of that," he says.


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The U.S. flu season usally peaks any time between late December and March.

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