8 Cold and Flu Myths

By Stephanie Watson and Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
December 04, 2023
8 Cold and Flu Myths

Tall tales about these illnesses abound, passed around for generations and on the internet. Here’s the truth behind some of the most contagious cold and flu myths.

Myth #1: Don’t get the flu vaccine too early in the season. The protection could wear off.

The sooner you get your flu vaccine, the better protected you’ll be. Flu outbreaks can start as early as October, and it takes two weeks after you’ve been vaccinated for your body to develop antibodies against the virus.

Don’t worry about the vaccine wearing off. A study from the Naval Health Research Center in San Diego showed people who got vaccinated “had moderate, sustained protection up to six months post-vaccination, the duration of most influenza seasons,” said epidemiologist Jennifer Radin, MPH.


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Myth # 2: The flu is just a minor illness.

Flu can be serious. It kills tens of thousands of Americans each year.

Although most people who catch the flu make a full recovery after a week or two, some groups of people — including those with a weakened immune system, young children, and the elderly — are more vulnerable to pneumonia and other flu-related complications. Vaccination is the single most important step people can take to protect themselves from influenza.

Myth #3: You can catch the flu from a flu vaccine.

Flu viruses used in the vaccine are either dead or weakened to the point where they can’t make you sick. Some people do develop mild, flu-like symptoms, such as a low-grade fever, muscle aches, or headaches after their shot. Those are side effects of the vaccine, but they should go away after a day or two.

Myth #4: An antibiotic will make you feel better.

More than 60 percent of Americans ask their doctor for antibiotics to treat an upper respiratory infection, even though viruses — not bacteria — cause colds and the flu.

“Patients often expect their doctors to prescribe an antibiotic every time they get sick,” says Glenn Nemec, MD, a family physician in Monticello, Minn. “This does more harm than good because it leads to antibiotic resistance.”

Getting plenty of rest will do your body far better than an antibiotic.

Myth #5: You’re not contagious unless you have a fever.

If you have a cold or the flu, consider yourself contagious. You can even spread your germs before you start to show symptoms, and you’ll continue to be contagious until those symptoms are gone.

Be considerate of those around you. Stay home until you feel better. If you have to go out, cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough to contain your germs.

Myth #6: Avoid dairy when you’re sick.

A well-meaning friend or relative might have advised you to skip milk and ice cream when you have a cold because dairy causes your body to produce more mucus. Yet research doesn’t show that dairy worsens congestion or a runny nose. As long as you’re not lactose intolerant, don’t stop drinking milk simply because of a cold.

Myth #7: A multi-symptom cold medicine will cure all that ails you.

Many over-the-counter cold medicines promise to fix every symptom you have, including cough, congestion, sore throat, aches and pains, and fever. Those combo drugs are probably overkill and could increase your blood pressure or cause drowsiness, confusion, and blurred vision, increasing your risk for falls and car accidents.   

If you take a multi-symptom cold medicine containing acetaminophen and then pop a couple of Tylenol, you’ll get more than the recommended dose. Instead of choosing a multi-symptom drug, take only medicine that targets the symptoms you have. 

Myth #8: There’s nothing you can do to treat a flu — just wait it out.

You don’t need medicine for the flu, but taking an antiviral drug such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu), zanamivir (Relenza), or peramivir (Rapivab) can make your symptoms milder, help you get over the flu faster, and prevent complications.

If you want to try an antiviral drug, get a prescription from your doctor as soon as you start to feel symptoms. The medicines work best when you take them within the first two days of getting sick.


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December 04, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN