Last week, I came down with a nasty cold—clogged sinuses, sore throat, coughing—that kept me home for several days. Various friends and family members called to check on me, and each said a variation of the following: “You better see a doctor. You could have the flu!” No matter how much I tried to argue that what I was experiencing was a garden-variety winter respiratory virus which no doctor could cure, each of my callers was certain I needed Tamiflu ASAP. Even when I pointed out that I did not even have a fever or body aches, they were relentless with their insistence that I seek immediate medical treatment. One person even suggested I go the ER!
This all seemed so alarmist to me, which is amazing because, as a Panic Sister with Illness Anxiety, I worry about dying from everything. (I’m serious—no paper cut goes unwatched for signs of flesh-eating bacteria). Yet, virtually everyone I spoke with about my cold recoiled from me in genuine fear that (1) I might die from this virus and (2) they might catch it from me and, then, die too.
Then I started reading some of the recent emails we received from our Anxiety Sisterhood and there was an unmistakable theme running through the correspondence: everyone seems to be terrified of the flu. One Sister said she is afraid to leave her house and obsessively washes her hands all day. Another said she is wearing a mask whenever she leaves her house. Yet another refused to accompany her husband to the movies for fear of lurking flu bugs.
It’s not surprising people are so freaked out about catching the flu. Over the last decade, influenza has morphed from a rather routine seasonal diagnosis into an international threat of biblical proportions. We hear of “strains” and “mutations” and “pandemics” on the news, where, every day, someone who has died from the flu is spotlighted. No wonder we are anxious about this invisible terrorist!
But, as every Anxiety Sister should well know, the media relies on exaggeration and hype to capture and maintain its audience. Scary headlines are their modus operandi. And this includes the internet, which makes everything a crisis. If you don’t believe me, check out www.snopes.com which aims to fact check all the sensational stories circulating on your Facebook feed.
I am not suggesting that the flu is not a serious illness and shouldn’t be attended to immediately. What I am saying is that we need some facts to help us soothe our panicked brains:
• In order to get the flu, you must be within 3 feet of an infected person whose bodily fluids come into contact with your eyes, nose or mouth (or hands, which inevitably end up in contact with your eyes, nose and mouth). So being in the same building, restaurant, movie theatre, etc. does not mean you will be exposed to the virus.
• On any given year, roughly 12% of the US population contracts the influenza virus. Some years, that percentage is only 5%.
• In 2014, there were 4605 deaths due to influenza. Given that there are 325.4 million people in the US, that’s a pretty tiny number. Really very very tiny and small.
• People who die from the flu, in almost all cases, have underlying health conditions and/or compromised immune systems. Most deaths are among the elderly and very young children.
• Many people who report having the flu are unwittingly not telling the truth. Influenza is a very specific virus which must be confirmed by a lab. Lots of docs diagnose flu on a hunch and give scared patients Tamiflu without testing to see if it is indeed the flu. Those patients will tell everyone they have the flu. But, in many cases, it is not influenza but another respiratory infection which has similar symptoms. Some bad colds can feel much worse than a moderate flu! And you are much more likely to contract a bad cold…
• Every year, a rumor circulates that the flu vaccine is less effective than the one from the previous year. This year, I have heard the number 10% bandied about quite a bit. In reality, there is rarely a big difference in effectiveness from one year to the next. For the current flu season, the vaccine is proving to be approximately 32% effective. In 2017, it was 33% effective.
• Each year, flu headlines contain the phrase “most widespread ever.” Translation: lots of people in every state get the flu. Here’s what’s not in the headline: very few die.
You know how practical we Anxiety Sisters are so we do have a few suggestions to help you avoid the flu:
1. Avoid shaking hands during flu season. If you must, then wash immediately with soap and water. In fact, washing your hands frequently during flu season is very good prevention.
2. Get a flu shot (it’s not too late).
3. Don’t touch your face until after you have washed your hands.
4. Avoid emergency rooms, if possible. Flu germs are notorious tenants of hospitals, urgent care centers, and pediatrician’s offices.
5. Carry a package of Lysol wipes, especially if you travel. I wipe down my airplane seat, armrests, tray table, and tv controls. I also wipe down my hotel rooms—remote controls, door knobs, sinks, toilets, light switches, etc.
And, finally, don’t allow influenza to create so much anxiety—anxiety lowers your immunity plus it feels crappy to be afraid to leave your house. I’ve had the flu, and it truly does suck. But, honestly, constant panic is far far worse.