JMU expert busts flu myths

by Eric Gorton

Flu expert Audrey Burnett


With the last official day of summer 2019 — Sunday Sept. 22 — just around the corner, it won’t be long before flu season begins . . . right? 

Actually, influenza can strike just about any time of year, so there’s not really an official beginning of flu season. Still, James Madison University researcher Audrey Burnett recommends getting a flu shot soon. An associate professor of health sciences who teaches about community health and infectious diseases, Burnett gets her shot every August. “I have had doctors ask, ‘Isn’t that too soon?’ But when you think about it, it takes two weeks for that vaccine to really kick in to your immune system, so the earlier, the better,” she said. 

Here are some more flu myths Burnett can bust. 

Myth: Healthy people don't need to get a flu shot.

Burnett: I recommend the shot for everyone. Immunity is largely hereditary, but some protection is better than none. 

The flu shot doesn't work.

Burnett: Scientists determine what strains to vaccinate against based on computer models, but it’s still, to some degree, a guessing game in terms of which strain should be included in any given flu season. It can be more effective some years than others. 

The flu vaccine is unsafe.

Burnett: Generally speaking, the annual flu vaccine is approved for individuals six months and older, including pregnant woman during any trimester. There are two main vaccine types, trivalent and quadrivalent, with six variations among the two types. There are different age restrictions for the different types. For those with egg allergies, there is also an egg-free version. There is also the nasal spray vaccine for those who may not like needles, but because this is the live-virus version of the shot, it is approved for ages 2-49 and is not safe for pregnant women. 

If someone is allergic to a particular ingredient in the vaccine, he/she should take other precautionary measures, such as wearing a mask and using hand sanitizer. Patients with certain chronic health conditions (Guillan-Barre syndrome) may also not be good candidates for the vaccine. 

Myth: After getting a flu shot, you are immediately protected.

Burnett: Unfortunately, no. It takes up to two weeks for the vaccine to work, as it takes this long for one's immune system to recognize the virus and ward it off when it does encounter it. Therefore, one could acquire the virus within this two-week period, which means the earlier in the season one gets the vaccine, the better. 

Myth: The flu shot can cause the flu.

Burnett: The flu vaccine itself cannot cause the flu. 

Myth: The flu shot will not last a full season.

Burnett: Generally speaking, the vaccine is good for one flu season, perhaps a bit longer. However, because the virus frequently changes its protein coat, we require a different vaccine every season. 

Myth: Going out in the cold without a coat will cause the flu.

Burnett: No, this is a misnomer! Influenza is a virus, which means you have to come into respiratory contact with the virus itself, such as via someone sneezing, coughing and the like. The act of going outside in the cold without a coat does not make one automatically more susceptible unless he/she has a compromised immune system and comes into contact with the virus itself. Hence, it is important to maintain a strong immune system via eating a healthy diet, getting sufficient sleep, and effectively managing stress, and better yet, getting the flu vaccine. 

Myth: You can't spread the flu when you feel well.

Burnett: There is what is known as the carrier state for the flu, meaning that a person may be feeling fine and showing no symptoms, but still harbors the virus and can transmit it to others. 

To arrange an interview with Burnett, contact Eric Gorton at or 540-908-1760.



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Published: Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Last Updated: Tuesday, September 17, 2019

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