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What's the real story on influenza (flu)?

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A version of this article was first published in the Winter 2015 issue of Healthier You magazine.

In my experience as a nurse, I have heard many questions about the flu and the flu vaccine. With flu season upon us, I wanted to look at some of the common myths I hear every year about influenza ("the flu") and the vaccine in hopes to provide some accurate information for you to learn and share this season!

There is often a misunderstanding about the flu, with many believing that influenza is the stomach flu or the common cold. In fact, the flu is generally much worse than the common cold. Symptoms such as fever, headache, aches and pains, extreme fatigue, and cough are more common and more intense with the flu than they are with the common cold.

The common cold also generally does not result in serious health problems. Influenza, on the other hand, can lead to bacterial infections such as ear infection, a sinus infection, bronchitis, or pneumonia. Certain groups of people – such as seniors 65 and older, very young children, and people who have lung or heart disease, certain chronic health conditions, or weakened immune systems – are at high risk for serious flu complications.

Influenza is highly contagious and infects millions of Canadians every year. While most recover in about a week, thousands of Canadians, most of them young children and seniors, will die due to flu-related complications like pneumonia each year.

"I got the flu from my flu shot" is probably the most common myth I hear. In fact, the flu shot cannot give you influenza because the vaccine contains killed viruses that cannot cause infection. The vaccine that is given as a nasal spray does contain live virus but these viruses are attenuated (weakened) and cannot cause flu illness.

Another common question is why we need to get the flu vaccine every year. Because the flu virus is constantly changing, the flu vaccine is reviewed and updated each year to protect you.

How can I prevent influenza?

  • Wash your hands regularly
  • Promptly dispose of used tissues in the waste basket or garbage
  • Cough and sneeze into your shirt sleeve rather than your hands
  • Stay home when you are ill
  • Get an influenza vaccine (are you eligible for a free vaccine?). Vaccines are available at any community pharmacy and may be available from your family physician or nurse practitioner.

Benefits of the flu vaccine

  • Prevents you from getting sick with the flu.
  • Helps protect people around you who are more vulnerable to a serious flu illness.
  • Helps to make your illness milder if you do get sick.

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