The truth about common COVID-19 and flu myths
Inaccurate health information can swirl around the Internet like a germ-filled fog, spreading faster than a nasty cough or sneeze. And as the COVID-19 pandemic and related research evolve, we continue to learn new information about this virus all the time, making it tough to sort fact from fiction. That confusion, combined with common myths that persist about the seasonal flu, can lead people to make unwise health decisions. Here are the facts about some common COVID-19 and flu myths:
MYTH: COVID-19 is over-hyped — it’s no worse than the seasonal flu.
Reality: While it’s true that some people might develop only a mild case of COVID-19 or show no symptoms at all, this virus spreads more rapidly than the seasonal flu and is believed to have a higher mortality rate. In a typical year, 20,000 to 30,000 Americans die from the flu. As of mid-August 2020, nearly 172,000 Americans had died of COVID-19 — more than the number of Americans who died in the Vietnam War or World War I. That said, the seasonal flu isn’t a risk to dismiss either: It kills healthy kids and adults every year. It’s also possible to get both COVID-19 and the flu at the same time, which can lead to more serious outcomes. So get your flu shot, and get it early. Learn more about protecting yourself from the flu
MYTH: I’m young and healthy, so I don’t need to worry about getting seriously sick from the flu or COVID.
Reality: COVID-19 continues to be more fatal in people older than 85 and those who have underlying health conditions. But younger people are still at risk: About 20 percent of total COVID-19 deaths have involved patients younger than 65, and even more survivors of the virus have still gotten sick enough to be hospitalized.
A May 2020 report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) showed that a quarter of the patients who had been hospitalized for COVID-19 in Georgia were not considered high risk because of age or an underlying health condition. Many who recover from COVID-19 also see long-term damage from the disease. And in recent months, there have been reports nationwide of COVID-19 cases surging among people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, fueling community spread and lowering the average age of those infected.
While the very young and very old face a higher risk of dying from seasonal flu, the flu still kills some healthy people every year. And even if you don’t get a serious case yourself, you could be responsible for transmitting the virus to someone else who might not be as lucky. No matter what your age, you should avoid exposure and take precautions, including getting the flu vaccine, to protect yourself and those around you. Learn more about keeping yourself and your family safe
MYTH: There are already good treatment drugs for COVID-19.
Reality: While researchers and clinicians worldwide and at UW Health continue to work feverishly to develop a vaccine and new treatments, there are still no FDA-approved treatments to prevent or cure COVID-19. Treatment for the seriously ill consists of oxygen, assisted-breathing technologies and the regular standard of care for pneumonia patients.
In the past, the malaria drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine have been suggested as treatments for COVID-19, but these medications can have risks (a man in Arizona died after ingesting a version of chloroquine used to kill parasites in aquarium fish), and the data on their effectiveness has been limited and conflicting. An experimental antiviral drug, remdesivir, has shown promise as a treatment for COVID-19 patients who require supplemental oxygen, but research is ongoing. The CDC has more details on the current status of drugs being tried to treat this condition.
MYTH: Home remedies can prevent or cure COVID-19.
Reality: Sorry, but there’s no evidence that garlic, chlorine, warm water, lemon juice or super doses of vitamins can stave off this virus. Your best bet is to prevent exposure by avoiding close contact, wearing a mask in public areas and practicing good hygiene (mom was right: wash your hands!). The CDC shares these tried-and-true methods for protecting yourself and others from COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses.
MYTH: The COVID-19 virus was deliberately created by humans.
Reality: COVID-19 has the hallmarks of a zoonotic disease, one that arises in animals and then jumps to humans. Nonetheless, conspiracy theories have ranged from the idea that COVID-19 was created in a biological warfare laboratory to a theory that it’s caused or spread by 5G technology. A gene study by a team of international researchers and published March 17 in the prestigious journal Nature debunks the idea that the virus was built in a lab. They studied the “spike” proteins that arise from the virus, which look like crowns (hence the name “coronavirus”). These crown spikes are also what makes the disease so infectious because they latch onto human cells and crack them open, injecting the virus.
Researchers found that the spikes shared gene sequences with previously known coronaviruses in bats and in pangolins, both animals that are found in live animal markets in China. If COVID-19 had been “engineered” to infect humans, the authors say that scientists would have used a “backbone” known to cause human illness, rather than one found in animals.
MYTH: It’s better to intentionally expose yourself to COVID so we can build herd immunity.
Reality: Herd immunity is an important piece of disease prevention, but it’s usually achieved through a vaccine. Without a vaccine, as much as 70% of the population would need to be infected with COVID-19 to reach herd immunity, leading to devastatingly high rates of death beyond what we’ve already seen. It’s also unclear how long COVID-19 antibodies might last or how well they might prevent reinfection. Until there is an effective vaccine, disease prevention through social distancing and hygiene measures is a far safer and more practical course.
MYTH: COVID-19 case numbers are inflated. Deaths from other causes are being attributed to COVID-19, or rising case numbers are because of increased testing.
Reality: Public health experts believe that, if anything, COVID-19 cases have been undercounted because of a lack of testing early on. And even as testing has significantly increased, the rise in positive cases has outpaced the increase in testing. It’s more likely that rising infection rates are related to states easing stay-at-home orders and more people ignoring social distancing recommendations. If you encounter a conspiracy theory being circulated in social media or by friends or family, consider the source and check the facts (see sidebar: “How to tell health fact from fiction”).
MYTH: Hospitals and clinics aren’t safe now.
Reality: It’s understandable that you might feel nervous to go into a hospital or clinic during a pandemic, but health care facilities are taking a number of precautions to keep patients and staff safe. Avoiding or postponing needed medical care also brings its own risks. If you have a medical concern or are due for a checkup, reach out to your primary care provider. In some cases, you might be able to do a video visit through UW Health’s Care Anywhere. Learn more about how UW Health is keeping patients safe.
MYTH: You need to thoroughly sanitize all of your groceries, including produce.
Reality: During the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak, there was more focus on surface transmission. While the virus can linger on surfaces for short periods, the main method of virus transmission is believed to be through direct, person-to-person contact. That said, it’s a good idea to wash and/or sanitize your hands before and after you go to the store, after you unpack your groceries, and before you prepare food or eat.
You can rinse produce in cold water — do not clean fruit or vegetables with solutions containing bleach, detergent or soap. Bleach, in particular, is dangerous to use for washing food, even in a highly diluted solution. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) also advises against washing fruits or vegetables with detergents or soap, which can cause mild stomach irritation with nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or abdominal pain.
MYTH: You can get the flu from the flu shot.
Reality: It’s impossible to get the flu from a flu shot because the viruses in the shot are dead and can’t cause disease. The nasal mist is a little different; the viruses in the nasal spray are weakened but not dead. Those who get the nasal spray may get a mild sore throat or headache after vaccination, but they won’t get the full-blown flu.
MYTH: The flu shot doesn’t always work so there’s no point in getting it.
Reality: There are four prominent flu strains that affect humans: two strains of influenza A and two strains of influenza B. Typically, the vaccine covers three of the four, based on research and projections about which strains are expected to circulate that season. However, the flu virus constantly mutates, which is why some years the vaccine might offer better coverage than others.
This year’s vaccine should be more effective than ever because it will cover all four major strains. And even partial protection is better than no protection. If you still end up getting the flu, already being vaccinated can make your illness less severe. And considering that the flu kills 20,000 to 30,000 people every year — including healthy people — it’s better not to take chances.
MYTH: It’s better to wait than to get the flu shot too early.
Reality: The flu season can start earlier than you think — cases can still circulate during the summer, and in years past, Wisconsin has seen massive outbreaks in October. While it’s true that immunity does fade over time, especially in older patients, it’s better to protect yourself early and have at least partial protection later instead of entering the flu season unprotected.
Those who are 65 and older or who have weakened immune systems should ask about a high-potency version of the vaccine, which stimulates a better, longer-lasting immune response in those populations. Learn why getting your flu shot early is so important, particularly during COVID-19
How to tell health fact from fiction
- Consider the source. Don’t believe everything you see on social media, hear over the neighbor’s fence, or read in news stories from partisan sources.
- Fact check. If something sounds too good to be true or a little out there, check reliable sources like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, your state health department, and your doctor’s office or health system.
- Pause before you share. Be a part of the solution and don’t share or forward information before you know it’s from an accurate and trustworthy source.