With COVID-19 in the spotlight, it may be easy to overlook the other potentially deadly virus going around this time of year: influenza, or flu. Flu season officially runs from October through May, which makes now a good time to arm yourself with real facts about the virus that claims tens of thousands of lives — a majority of them older adults — every year. Here, we correct seven common flu myths to help you strengthen your defenses.
Myth No. 1 Cold weather causes flu
Viruses cause flu, not cold weather. What is true, says David Hooper, M.D., chief of the Infection Control Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, is that the influenza virus survives better in colder environments. What's more, “during colder weather, people tend to gather inside with closed windows and less air circulating, causing higher risk of flu spread,” he says. Additionally, lower temperatures may negatively affect the immune response, which makes us more vulnerable to flu, which spreads via droplets as people around us talk, sneeze or cough.
Myth No. 2 Flu is just a bad cold
Not every respiratory illness is the flu, notes Waleed Javaid, M.D., director of Infection Prevention and Control at Mount Sinai Downtown in New York City. While flu and the common cold can have similar symptoms, they are caused by different viruses. And they each possess distinct symptoms, too. Cold, for instance, may give you a runny or stuffy nose; influenza usually doesn't. And while a cold can make you feel lousy, the flu “can make you feel like you were hit by a train,” Javaid says. In addition, colds rarely lead to dangerous complications, whereas “a bad case of flu can travel to the lungs and cause serious infections,” says Arun Karlamangla, M.D., a geriatrician at UCLA Health.