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It’s really not too late to get your flu shot, and other flu myths debunked

Remember how terrible the 2009 swine flu season was? This flu season is now as bad as that one, and public health officials in the United States don’t know if we’ve seen the worst yet.

So what’s happening? Nearly 3,000 people across the U.S. died as a result of the flu in the first 20 days of 2018, according to the latest available data from the National Center for Health Statistics, and that number has likely risen. Since flu season began, 63 children have died from the flu.

More than 17,100 flu cases have been laboratory-confirmed since this flu season started Oct. 1, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 60 per 100,000 people are being hospitalized for the flu, and all 50 states except for Oregon and Hawaii have reported widespread influenza activity. (Pregnant women, people with heart disease and children remain at the highest risk, the CDC said.)

As illnesses swelled this week, there was plenty of misinformation circulating. Here are some common myths — and realities — about the flu and the flu vaccine.

MYTH: Herd immunity will protect me.

FACT: Sadly, this isn’t true. Flu strains are highly contagious, often spreading from person to person through unwashed hands or air droplets after someone’s uncovered cough or sneeze. Each time you get the flu shot, your body learns how to fight the injected flu strains, strengthening your immune system. If enough people do this in your community, it bolsters overall health of everyone around you and protects people whose immune systems are too weak to sustain a flu shot, such as a newborn baby, or, someone with cancer or type 1 diabetes.

But that system falls apart if you (and others) dodge getting a flu shot. According to Vaccines.gov, a website maintained by the Department of Health and Human Services: “Community immunity protects us only if enough people continue to get vaccinated.”

MYTH: It’s too late in the flu season for the vaccine to make a difference.

FACT: Fake news! This flu season has a long way to go. If you’re still waffling about getting this year’s flu vaccine, Anne Schuchat, the CDC’s acting director, has a message for you: get it done. Schuchat said in a phone call with reporters Friday that it doesn’t matter if you’ve already had the flu this season — the vaccine can still protect you.

And don’t get discouraged by reports that flu vaccine supplies are running low. Call ahead, check availability and schedule an appointment at your doctor’s office, pharmacy or wherever vaccines are available. Get the shot.

MYTH: The flu shot gives you the flu.

FACT: False, friend. If you get a flu shot, you will not come down with influenza. You may develop a low-grade fever, headache or muscle aches or tenderness at the injection site. But since your flu vaccine includes influenza strains, those strains have been inactivated, which means they are no longer infectious, the CDC said.

MYTH: Antibiotics will help.

FACT: Antibiotics are great, but they can’t do everything. They are designed to give your body the boost it needs to fight bacteria. But antibiotics are no use if you’ve contracted a virus, such as the common cold or the flu, according to the CDC.

To shorten your bout with the flu, you need anti-viral medication, such as Tamiflu, preferably as soon as you first recognize flu-like symptoms (Tamiflu is most effective within the three days of having the flu). The CDC said Friday it is addressing the nation’s dwindling supply of Tamiflu. In the meantime, Schuchat said people should call multiple pharmacies to find it.

PBS NewsHour’s Courtney Norris reported for this story.

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