Quitting smoking may improve mental well-being

  • According to the results of a recent systematic review, quitting smoking may produce positive health effects in a matter of weeks.
  • The review found that people who quit smoking had a greater reduction in anxiety, depression, and symptoms of stress than people who did not.
  • If accurate, these findings could help motivate millions of people looking for more reasons to quit smoking or avoid stopping for fears of negative mental health or social effects.

Each year, smoking cigarettes claims the lives of more than 480,000 people in the United States and more than 8 million people around the world. And, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), smoking is the leading cause of preventable illness, impoverishment, and death worldwide.

Smoking rates have been falling substantially over the last 50 years, particularly in high income countries, with the rate of tobacco use now at 19.7% in the U.S in 2018. In contrast, this rate remains stubbornly high (36.7%) in people with mental health issues.

Some people believe smoking offers mental health benefits, such as reducing stress and anxiety. In one study, it was not just smokers who thought this but also mental health practitioners. Around 40–45% of mental health professionals assumed that smoking cessation would not be helpful to their patients.

Some also believe that mental health symptoms would worsen if they quit smoking. Many smokers worry that they will lose social relationships, either from the irritability that can occur early on during smoking cessation or because they view smoking as a central part of their social life.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 40 million people in the U.S. continue to smoke cigarettes.

This is why a group of researchers set out to explore how smoking impacts mental health precisely. Their review appears in the Cochrane Library.

The mental benefits of quitting

“Smokers often believe that cigarettes are the crutch they need when they feel low, but there is good reason to think that smoking is actually making them feel worse,” said Dr. Gemma Taylor, the review’s lead author.

“The daily cycle of waking up with cravings, satisfying the cravings through smoking, only to be back wanting another cigarette within hours has an understandable impact on how people feel.

“But get past the withdrawal that many smokers feel when they stop, and better mental health is on the other side,” she continued. “From our evidence, we see that the link between smoking cessation and mood seem to be similar in a range of people. And most crucially, there is no evidence that people with mental health conditions will experience a worsening of their health if they stop smoking.”

If these findings are confirmed, they could offer hope to millions of people afraid to quit smoking for fears of experiencing worsened mental health symptoms.

Knowing that quitting smoking can improve mental and social well-being within weeks could also help keep individuals motivated during withdrawal.

Nicotine and dopamine

Nicotine, the primary active ingredient in tobacco cigarettes, can briefly improve mood.

When someone inhales smoke, it takes around 10–20 seconds for nicotine to reach the brain. Once there, it stimulates the release of dopamine.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with positive feelings. It tends to improve concentration and mood, relax muscles, and reduce stress. These properties give most people an almost immediate feeling of relaxation.

But the positive effects of nicotine wear off quickly.

Smoking and mental health

When someone smokes, it temporarily reduces withdrawal symptoms. This means they must keep smoking at the same rate to avoid withdrawal. This cycle of positive and negative symptoms helps drive nicotine addiction.

But smoking can not provide any long-term or meaningful positive benefits.

Scientists have identified links between mental health and smoking. For instance, one report found that people with mental health disorders smoke at two to four times the average rate of the general population.

Other studies have shown associations between depression and smoking, but the relationship between the two is likely to be complex, and scientists need to carry out more research to understand the details. Depression is a persistent risk factor for nicotine dependency across age groups.

Quitting improves mental well-being

In the recent review, researchers examined the findings of 102 studies. For inclusion in the review, each study had to last for at least 6 weeks and track whether participants quit smoking or not, plus any mental health changes. The studies either had to have a control group or be a long-term follow-up study of smokers, some of whom quit and some who did not.

In total, the review included data from more than 169,500 participants.

Most of the studies surveyed the general population, while several included people with mental health conditions. Some of the studies gathered information from participants with physical or chronic health conditions, pregnant people, or those who had recently undergone surgery.

Based on their analysis, the team concluded that, contrary to smokers and some practitioners’ fears, quitting smoking compared with not quitting did not worsen depression, anxiety, and symptoms of stress.

The review also found some evidence that quitting smoking promoted positive feelings and mental well-being. The team concluded that stopping may even have a small positive effect on social well-being.

A sub-analysis of three studies showed a pooled reduced likelihood of 24% in developing mixed anxiety and depression in the future and, based on two studies, a 44% reduced chance of developing anxiety alone. The studies on future diagnoses of depression were too dissimilar to calculate a summary result.

Limitations

It is worth noting that the team had high confidence in the overall finding that quitting tobacco does not worsen mental health symptoms.

However, they were less confident in their results regarding the mental health benefits of stopping smoking — the calculated likelihood of these findings was very low to moderate.

Their confidence in the link between quitting smoking and improvement in mental health symptoms was very low for depression and low for anxiety.

This is because the studies included in the review used different methods and ways of assessing mental health symptoms, making it harder to combine the results. The authors also note that certain studies had limitations and design flaws.

The research duration also varied drastically between studies, ranging from 6 weeks to 6 years.

More robust, uniform research is needed to understand the true relationship between mental health, mental health symptoms, and smoking.

During a pandemic may not seem like the time to quit smoking. But now may just be the right time, according to Deborah Arnott, Chief Executive of Action on Smoking and Health.

“After the year we’ve all had, some smokers might feel now is not the time to stop. The opposite is true — put smoking behind you, and a brighter future beckons. Using nicotine replacement, whether patches, gum, or vapes, can help deal with any withdrawal symptoms, which last at most a matter of weeks,” says Arnott.

“Be confident that once you’ve put smoking behind you, not only will you be healthier and wealthier, but you will feel happier too.”

The American Lung Association offer tips for cutting down and quitting smoking successfully. They say that every smoker can quit, and they will help find the technique that works for every individual smoker.

The key to a longer life!

  • Findings from a new observational study support most of the current dietary guidelines on fruits and vegetables.
  • Daily intake of 5 servings of fruits and vegetables was associated with a lower risk of death related to cancer, cardiovascular disease, or respiratory disease.
  • Starchy vegetables and fruit juices, however, did not appear to contribute to the reduction in risk.

For many decades, nutritionists have recommended a balanced diet to provide the body with the proper nutrients to stay healthy. The core components of this diet include vegetables, fruits, grains, proteins, and dairy.

A recent study by researchers at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, MA, provides further evidence for current dietary guidelines and expands on them, finding that consuming at least 2 fruit and 3 vegetable servings on a daily basis may lower the risk of both disease-related death and death from all causes.

Current dietary guidelines

“While groups like the American Heart Association recommend 4–5 servings each of fruits and vegetables daily, consumers likely get inconsistent messages about the recommended amount and which foods to include and avoid,” says Dr. Dong D. Wang, M.D., Sc.D., an epidemiologist and nutritionist at Harvard Medical School and lead author of the study.

The Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture published their recommendations in the form of the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

According to this set of guidelines, half of the plate for every meal should contain fruits and vegetables.

However, the guidelines also note that more than 80% of people in the United States do not meet this recommendation and should aim to increase their consumption of nutrient-dense foods.

Participant dietary information

The researchers collected self-reported dietary information from two large cohort studies: the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS) and the Health Professionals’ Follow-up Study (HPFS).

The NHS cohort included registered female nurses between the ages of 30 and 55 years, while the HPFS cohort included males aged 40–75 years with occupations in the health profession. These studies included follow-ups with the participants every 2–4 years to accumulate dietary information over a span of approximately 30 years.

The researchers excluded participants with baseline heart disease, cancer, or diabetes, leaving them with data from 66,719 females and 42,016 males.

They also incorporated data from an additional 26 studies involving a total of 1.9 million participants, which examined the relationship between fruit and vegetable intake and death rates.

The high participant numbers and continuous longitudinal assessments provided the team with an extensive collection of data for analysis.

However, it is important to note that the criteria of the two cohorts — occupation and corresponding education — suggest a similar socioeconomic status across the participants, who may have been more likely than other members of the population to have access to a healthy diet. The study does not address the realities and effects of food insecurity.

Nutritional values of fruits and vegetables lower risk of death

The study outcomes showed that an increased intake of fruits and vegetables is associated with a lower risk of death, including death due to cancer, heart disease, or respiratory disease.

Additionally, the researchers saw the lowest risk of death at a threshold of a combined 5 servings, beyond which there was no apparent benefit on risk.

These results point to the nutritional value of these foods. For example, higher consumption of fruits and vegetables increases the intake of potassium and antioxidant activity, which link to lower blood pressure and improved lung function, respectively.

As the data are fully self-reported, there may be discrepancies between the actual and reported intakes. Participants with higher intake, in particular, may have tended to overestimate how many servings they consumed.

This margin of error may blur the defined threshold of 5 servings, so the study authors acknowledge that slightly higher servings (up to 10) could also lead to lowered risk.

This study also expands beyond current guidelines by differentiating among specific groups of fruits and vegetables.

The researchers observed trends with a lowered risk of death for leafy greens and foods rich in vitamin C and beta carotene. Fruits and vegetables that fall into these categories include spinach, kale, carrots, and citrus fruits.

Conversely, they did not identify any trends for fruit juices or starchy vegetables, such as potatoes and peas. One possible reason for the latter is the prominence of canned foods. The canning process may deprive starchy vegetables of their antioxidant properties.

Compared with whole fruits, the fluid form of juices may cause a more rapid elevation of blood glucose and insulin levels, which can increase the risk of disease.

In contrast to the existing guidelines, which include canned foods and juices among the recommended foods and drinks, this study calls for further research on the effects of these items on health.

Continued support for ‘5-a-day’ serving recommendation

Rather than being an interventional study, in which researchers directly implement variables and analyze the effects, this study was observational. As a result, it is not possible to conclude that the trends present in this study indicate a causal relationship.

Regardless, there is plentiful evidence that highlights the benefits of a balanced diet containing plenty of fruits and vegetables. The present conclusions also correspond to findings from similar observational studies on the associations between fruit and vegetable intake and disease.

The findings of this study conform to the overall current dietary guidelines to eat at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Additionally, it provides further insight into the specificities and benefits of fruit and vegetable intake.

fresh fruits and vegetables isolated on white background

ALL ABOUT SUGAR ( Medical Myth)

Over the centuries, this crystalline sweetener has invaded everyone’s snacks, drinks, guts, and minds. It has caused its fair share of controversy, too.

Although everyone is familiar with sugar as a concept, we’ll start with a brief explainer.

What is sugar?

Sugar is a soluble carbohydrate — a biological molecule consisting of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms. Other carbohydrates include starch and cellulose, which is a structural component of plant cell walls.

Simple sugars, or monosaccharides, include glucose and fructose. Granulated sugar is a compound sugar, or disaccharide, known as sucrose, which consists of glucose and fructose. During digestion, the body breaks down disaccharides into monosaccharides.

Still, the chemistry of sugar does not explain its infamy. The substance gained its dastardly reputation because it tastes delicious and, if consumed too freely, is bad for our health.

1. Sugar is addictive

Some experts believe sugar is an addictive substance. For instance, the authors of a controversial narrative review in 2017 write:

“Animal data has shown significant overlap between the consumption of added sugars and drug-like effects, including bingeing, craving, tolerance, withdrawal, cross-sensitization, cross-tolerance, cross-dependence, and reward and opioid effects.”

However, this review focuses on animal studies. As the authors of another review explain, “there is a methodological challenge in translating this work because humans rarely consume sugar in isolation.”

Dr. Dominic M. Dwyer from Cardiff University’s School of Psychology explains, “Although certainly present in some people, addiction-like behaviors toward sugar and other foods are present only in a minority of obese individuals. However, we should remember that sugar can drive the overconsumption of foods alongside its addiction-like potential.”

Along similar lines, Prof. David Nutt, Chair of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs and head of the Department of Neuropsychopharmacology and Molecular Imaging at Imperial College London, writes:

“There is not currently scientific evidence that sugar is addictive, although we know that sugar has psychological effects, including producing pleasure, and these are almost certainly mediated via brain reward systems.”

It is worth noting that even though health experts do not class sugar as an addictive substance, that does not make it healthful.

2. Sugar makes kids hyperactive

This is perhaps the most common myth associated with sugar: eating candy causes children to run wild. In fact, there is no scientific evidence that sugar increases hyperactivity in the vast majority of children.

For instance, a 1995 meta-analysis in JAMA combined data from 23 experiments across 16 scientific papers. They concluded:

“This meta-analysis of the reported studies to date found that sugar (mainly sucrose) does not affect the behavior or cognitive performance of children.”

However, people with children may doubt the truth of this conclusion. 

3. Sugar causes diabetes

Another relatively common myth is that sugar directly causes diabetes. However, there is no direct link between the two. The confusion perhaps arises because there is an intrinsic association between blood sugar levels and diabetes.

The story is a little more complicated, though. Overweight and obesity are risk factors for type 2 diabetes, and consuming high levels of sugar does increase the likelihood of developing overweight or obesity. However, sugar is not the direct cause of type 2 diabetes.

As for type 1 diabetes, dietary and lifestyle factors do not play a part.

4. Avoid fruit when dieting

Fruits are delicious, partly because they are sweet, thanks to naturally occurring sugars. Because of their sugar content, some people believe that we should avoid eating fruit when maintaining a moderate weight.

This is a myth. Fruits contain a range of healthful compounds, including a variety of vitamins and minerals, and fiber.

Fruit consumption is associated with health benefits, including a reduced mortality rate.

One study concluded that freeze-dried mango “does not negatively impact body weight but provides a positive effect on fasting blood glucose.” Another study found that consuming blueberries enhanced insulin sensitivity.

However, it is worth noting that the two studies mentioned above received grants from the National Mango Board and the United States Highbush Blueberry Council, respectively.

Make of that what you will, but there is no doubt that consuming fruit benefits health. Removing it from our diet to reduce sugar intake would be a mistake.

5. We must eliminate sugar from our diet

Because we know consuming excess sugar is bad for health, it makes sense to reduce our intake. However, it is not necessary to remove it from our diet entirely.

As we noted above, fruits contain sugar, and they benefit health, so cutting it from our diet would be counter-productive.

As with everything in life, moderation is key. With that said, sweetened beverages, such as soda, have associations with several negative health consequences, including kidney damage, cellular aging, hip fractures, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and more.

Cutting soda from our diets would certainly  be a fantastic idea.

6. Sugar causes cancer

Despite the rumors, most experts do not believe sugar directly causes cancer or fuels its spread.

Cancer cells divide rapidly, meaning they require a great deal of energy, which sugar can provide. This, perhaps, is the root of this myth.

However, all cells need sugar, and cancer cells also require other nutrients to survive, such as amino acids and fats, so it’s not all about sugar. According to Cancer Research UK:

“There’s no evidence that following a sugar-free diet lowers the risk of getting cancer, or boosts the chances of surviving if you are diagnosed.”

As with diabetes, there is a twist — increased sugar intake has links with weight gain, while overweight and obesity are linked with increased cancer risk.

So, although sugar does not directly cause cancer and does not help it thrive, if someone consumes high levels of sugar and develops obesity, their risk increases.

Scientists are continuing to investigate the relationship between cancer and sugar intake. If there are links between the two, they are likely to be convoluted. For instance, the American Cancer Society write:

“There is evidence that a dietary pattern high in added sugars affects levels of insulin and related hormones in ways that may increase the risk of certain cancers.”

One study, which included data from 101,279 participants, concluded that “total sugar intake was associated with higher overall cancer risk,” even after controlling for multiple factors, including weight.

Other researchers have found links between sugar intake and specific cancers, such as endometrial cancer and colon cancer. However, for now, the link is not as solid as the rumor mill claims.

The take home

Sugar is a much-researched topic. Typing “sugar health” into Google Scholar brings up more than 78,000 results from 2020 alone. Navigating this amount of content is unwieldy, and, as with any scientific topic, there are disagreements.

Something to bear in mind is that many studies investigating the health impacts of sugar receive funding from the food industry. One review of research into soft drink consumption, nutrition, and health examined the results of 88 relevant studies.

They found “clear associations” between soft drink intake, body weight, and medical issues.” Tellingly, they also report that “studies funded by the food industry reported significantly smaller effects than did non-industry-funded studies.”

Although there are a number of misunderstandings surrounding sugar, some things are certain: although it might not directly cause diabetes or cancer, eating high levels of sugar is not healthful. Moderation, I am afraid, is the solution.

If you haven’t been vaccinated yet this flu season, here’s what you need to know.

Flu activity is picking up across the country, with widespread infection in 24 states, according to the CDC. If that news has you worried about your own chances of coming down with the virus, here’s a major step you can take to protect yourself (if you haven’t already): Go get a flu shot.

That’s right. No matter what your reason was for putting off your flu vaccine, there’s still time to get one, even if it is January already. Here’s why.

What does the flu shot do?

Getting the flu shot causes your body to produce antibodies that fight the flu. These proteins in the blood are part of the immune system’s natural response to potentially harmful invaders. The vaccine makes it so that if and when you come in contact with one or more of the viruses that cause the flu, you’re less likely to develop flu symptoms.

How effective is the flu shot?

This year, the strain of the flu that seems to be most prevalent is influenza A in the form of H1N1. During last year’s particularly brutal flu season, H3N2 was the dominant strain, and the CDC estimated the flu shot was effective around 30% of the time. Why does the vaccine’s effectiveness vary from year to year? Before every flu season, health experts tweak the ingredients in that year’s flu vaccine, hoping to make it as effective as possible in protecting against the particular strains of flu-causing viruses that are expected to emerge. If that sounds tricky, that’s because it is.

“We need more research so we can develop an influenza vaccine that works 100% of the time, for 100% of people,” says Pritish K. Tosh, MD, a Mayo Clinic infectious disease physician and researcher. “But we do have a vaccine that is effective in preventing influenza infection and also, in those who get infected, in preventing complications such as hospitalization and even death. While the research is ongoing to create a better vaccine, we need to use the one that we already have.”

So, is it too late to get the flu shot?

Not at all. Flu season peaks from December to February, but it can last until May, according to the CDC. “If somebody hasn’t gotten infected yet, there’s still time to get infected. Therefore, getting the vaccine may help prevent infection and serious complications,” Dr. Tosh says.

In an ideal world, everyone would be vaccinated early in the season. It takes about two weeks for the flu shot to become effective, so the CDC recommends getting your flu shot by the end of October. That way, you’re fully protected by the time flu activity picks up, but not before. “The immunity generated does wane, so there is some thought that if you get it too early, perhaps by the end of the season you’re not getting the full effect,” explains Richard Webby, PhD, a member of the infectious diseases department at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Even after influenza A circulation slows, other strains, like influenza B, may circulate later in the winter. “It’s not atypical [for] an early influenza A season to be followed by smaller but later influenza B activity,” Webby says. The flu shot also protects against influenza B and, as in years past, pretty effectively, Dr. Tosh adds.

Where to get the flu shot

If you haven’t been vaccinated yet and you’re finally convinced that it’s time, you may contact at one of our clinics (Vistasol Medical Group or Morelia Clinic) as soon as possible to schedule an appointment for your FLU shot.

Kids Are Half as Likely to Get COVID-19 as Adults: Here’s What We Know

  • Growing evidence is showing that COVID-19 affects kids differently than adults.
  • Children experience lower infection rates, accounting for less than 10 percent of cases in the United States.
  • Infectious disease specialists say there are several factors that seem to protect children: immunity to seasonal coronaviruses, underdeveloped sinuses, and fewer chronic health conditions.

A new model from researchers in Israel found that kids are half as susceptible to COVID-19 compared to adults.

The report published Thursday, Feb. 11, in PLOS Computational Biology also found that people under 20 are less likely to transmit the virus to other people.

Growing evidence has showed that COVID-19 affects kids and younger people differently.

Children experience lower infection rates, accounting for less than 10 percent of cases in the United States.

When kids do get the disease, the symptoms are typically milder.

They also appear to transmit the virus less and are not primary drivers of community transmission.

Dr. Sharon Nachman, the chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital, said the lower rates of infection in kids are likely due to many factors.

“These could include a different immune response to virus as compared to adults, the frequent lack of comorbid conditions in many children, and ongoing/frequent exposures to other coronaviruses, and possibly some cross-variant nonspecific immunity,” Nachman said.

What the modeling found

The researchers evaluated transmission data of 637 households in Bnei Brak, Israel.

All individuals underwent PCR testing, and some of the participants were given serological antibody tests.

The researchers then took those findings and adjusted them to reflect the coronavirus’s overall infection and transmission rates.

They found that kids are 43 percent as susceptible to COVID-19 compared to adults.

The findings suggest kids transmit COVID-19 far less than adults. That is, the ability of children to pass the virus is about 63 percent compared to adults.

Children are also less likely to produce positive PCR tests, which looks for genetic material of the virus, even when they have the virus.

This could explain why kids have lower diagnosis rates across the globe.

“After monitoring the [COVID-19] pandemic for over a year, the data are clear,” said Dr. Robert Hamilton, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, “children have been spared the ravages of this illness.”

“Around the world, study after study has shown that children and adolescents account for only 1 to 3 percent of all cases, and that even fewer ultimately required hospitalization,” Hamilton said.

Why are kids less susceptible to COVID-19?

Dr. Amy Baxter, a clinical associate professor at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University, and CEO of PainCareLabs, suspects children are less affected by COVID-19 because of their underdeveloped sinuses.

“SARS-CoV-2 replicates in the nasopharynx, and children have extremely underdeveloped sinuses until about age 12,” Baxter told Healthline.

Baxter pointed out that even when children test positive for COVID-19, they may be less likely to transmit SARS-CoV-2.

“Even if the swab seems to show the same viral load, the tank size is so much different that kids’ immune systems aren’t triggered in the same way because they likely don’t absorb nearly as many copies of [the] virus,” Baxter said.

SARS-CoV-2 is usually nasally inhaled before it develops into COVID-19. From there, it travels past the nose and into the nasal cavities where the virus latches onto certain receptors called ACE2 and makes copies of itself to create an infection.

Dr. Kathleen Jordan, an infectious disease specialist and senior vice president of medical affairs at the women’s health provider Tia, suspects the lower attack rate in kids has to do with the fact that children generally don’t have as many health conditions or comorbidities as adults.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

lists obesity and type 2 diabetes as health conditions that can increase the risk of severe COVID-19.

Jordan thinks it’s a “combination of higher comorbidities in adults that increase their risk while some characteristics unique to children also protect them, such as immune characteristics and decreased propensity to clotting and inflammatory disorders in general.”

But there are many other theories scientists are looking into.

Kids may have higher immunity from other seasonal coronaviruses

that cause the common cold.

“Immunity to these coronavirus cousins of [SARS-CoV-2] viruses seems to confer some protection against [COVID-19] as well,” Hamilton said.

This crossover immunity may keep their immune systems sharp and ready to attack the novel coronavirus.

“It may be that age is the best protection for COVID,” Nachman noted.

There may be differences in microbiota, vitamin D levels, and melatonin that provide some degree of protection.

“These tempered pathways may play a role in why the disease is so much milder in children and less likely to cause symptoms or end organ damage as seen by these pathways in adults,” Jordan said.

What this means for community transmission

More research is needed to better understand kids’ role in transmitting the virus that causes COVID-19, specifically if and how schools and childcare centers fuel transmission.

However, children are not thought to be key drivers of transmission in schools or their communities.

A study from Ireland evaluating 40,000 people found that kids under 15 were half as likely to get and pass the coronavirus.

Still, kids can contract SARS-CoV-2, and COVID-19 spreads wherever humans interact, schools and childcare facilities included.

But given the growing evidence, Hamilton said many researchers and physicians feel the risks of keeping kids out of school — like depression and anxiety — are greater than the risk of contracting the new coronavirus in a school setting.

Podding, physical distancing, and mask wearing are effective measures for mitigating transmission in schools, Jordan noted.

“We have seen that school is the safest place for our children,” Nachman said. “In pretty much each school that is open to in-person learning, and with masking and some part of social distancing, there is almost no transmission of virus.”

The bottom line

A new model from researchers in Israel found that kids are half as susceptible to COVID-19 compared to adults.

They’re also less likely to transmit the illness and tend to produce negative PCR tests even when they have the virus.

Infectious disease specialists say there’s multiple factors that seem to protect children, such as immunity to seasonal coronaviruses, underdeveloped sinuses, and less comorbidities.

Given the evidence, many health experts believe the benefits of in-school learning outweigh the risks of contracting the coronavirus in a school setting.

Still, COVID-19 spreads wherever humans are, so mitigation measures such as face masking, physical distancing, and pod learning can help offset disease transmissions in childcare and learning facilities.

My Parents Are Vaccinated but I’m Not. Is It Safe for Us to Visit?

There’s no zero-risk activity while the virus is still circulating. But older adults who have been vaccinated should feel more confident in taking part in activities with people who are considered low-risk. 

For older adults who have been isolated from family and friends for the better part of a year to stay safe from the coronavirus, the emergency authorization of two COVID-19 vaccines offers some light at the end of the tunnel.

While the vaccine certainly offers more protection, experts caution it’ll still take some time before life returns to normal.

That includes what visits with loved ones will look like.

It’s exciting for people who have been vaccinated to think about resuming those things again, but we’re still not out of the woods yet.

As the United States continues its vaccine rollout, people over the age of 75, along with frontline essential workers, are being prioritized to receive the shot after healthcare personnel and nursing home residents.

In the next phase, people 65 to 74 and adults with underlying health conditions will be offered the vaccine.

This will put many families in a situation where older adults are vaccinated, but their children and grandchildren aren’t.

Healthline spoke with medical experts to see how families should go about visiting loved ones safely in these situations.

The risk is not zero

Dr. Colleen Kelley, an associate professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine, said that while the vaccine is moving the country in the right direction, “we are not in a zero risk situation and a few things need to happen before we get down to even a minimal risk situation.”

Those things include getting most of the population vaccinated and getting community transmission of COVID-19 under control.

“We are still at levels well above what we saw during the summer surge in most places,” said Kelley, who’s also a principal investigator for the Moderna and Novavax phase 3 vaccine clinical trials at the Ponce de Leon clinical research site.

Both she and Factora said it’ll be well into 2021 before we get to this point.

Until then, the same protective measures that have been in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including physical distancing, mask wearing, and good hand hygiene, should continue to be practiced when visiting loved ones.

“Today in February, I would do the same things I was doing in December,” Kelley said. “Visit outdoors wherever possible. If you’re indoors, be masked. We still need to keep any gatherings very small and limited as much as possible.”

One reason for this is that whichever vaccine an individual gets, it won’t be 100 percent effective. “Even with 94 or 95 percent efficacy with the Moderna and Pfizer vaccine, you still have that risk,” Factora said.

At the rate at which the virus is spreading across the country, even that 5 percent chance can still be risky.

“Even though the vaccine protects you, there’s still that risk that you’ll contract it and for older adults, you’re still going to be at higher risk of severe illness, hospitalization, and death compared to the rest of the population,” Factora said.

It’s also not known yet how well the vaccine is going to protect against emergent variants of the virus that are more contagious.

“That’s something scientists are studying, but it’s going to take some time to figure out,” Factora said.

What activities are safe for older adults who have been vaccinated?

There’s no zero-risk activity while the virus is still circulating. But older adults who have been vaccinated should feel more confident in taking part in activities with people who are considered low-risk.

“Particularly outdoor activities and particularly gatherings that are small, if you’re seeing family members who are not vaccinated but are still practicing social distancing and mask wearing,” Factora said, “you should feel safer because you now have an added protection with the vaccine.”

However, there’s an added complication for many families: The vaccine hasn’t been authorized for use in children.

The Pfizer vaccine has been authorized for people 16 and older, while the Moderna vaccine has been authorized for people 18 and older.

“There’s no time soon where we expect our children to be vaccinated,” Kelley said.

This may be of particular concern when it comes to older children and teenagers who are more likely to have larger social circles.

“In these instances, I think it’s a good idea for older adults to ask questions before a visit about where their grandkids have been over the last 10 days,” Factora said.

“If they’ve been keeping to themselves during that time and haven’t had symptoms, then you’re at lower risk of getting something because you’re outside the window where risk of transmission is highest,” he said.

Factora added: “If you can prepare for planned events by asking these questions and again keep the visits outdoors and limited, I think that’s a safe way for grandparents to see their grandkids.”

Experts said that once everyone in your social bubble has been vaccinated, the risk of COVID-19 transmission goes down.

While this may take a while for families with multiple generations, older adults should feel more comfortable about spending time with peers of the same age who have also been vaccinated.

“If you get vaccinated and the people within your bubble get vaccinated, you should have greater confidence that you’ll be less likely to contract COVID-19,” Factora said.

“This is great for many older adults in independent or assisted living facilities,” he said. “Engaging in social activities like card games and common dinners with friends and neighbors who have also been vaccinated, this should give you a better sense of safety.”

Until more of the population is vaccinated and community transmission goes down, older adults should still stay away from closed indoor spaces that are poorly ventilated.

“Bars, restaurants, crowded rooms, places where there’s lots of people — these are circumstances that are still considered highest risk that should be avoided,” Factora said.

13 COVID-19 vaccine myths

Of all the modern medical interventions we have at our disposal, few have been victim to as much falsehood as vaccines. As the world battles a pandemic, stripping the truth from the lies is more urgent than ever.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), between 2010 and 2015, vaccines prevented an estimated 10 million deaths.

Scientists have worked tirelessly to create safe and effective vaccines to protect us against SARS-CoV-2. Now, as many governments roll out COVID-19 vaccines, scientists and medical experts are facing a new challenge: misinformation and associated vaccine hesitancy.

Some anti-vaxxers — individuals who believe vaccines cause a range of medical ills — dedicate their entire lives to railing against vaccines. In reality, vaccines have saved lives of millions of people.

Vaccine hesitancy is nothing new and, in many ways, perfectly reasonable. For instance, misinformation about the vaccines’ safety and potential effects on the body is rife on the internet. Also, the COVID-19 vaccines were developed unusually swiftly and use relatively new technology.

Today, a significant percentage of the United States population, and the world at large, are nervous to take a shot that could save their lives.

In this article, we tackle some of the most common myths associated with the COVID-19 vaccines. Although it will not convince dyed-in-the-wool anti-vaxxers, we hope that this information will prove useful for those who are hesitant.

1. The vaccines are not safe, because they were developed so fast

It is true that scientists developed the COVID-19 vaccines faster than any other vaccine to date — under 1 year. The previous record breaker was the mumps vaccine, which was developed in 4 years.

There are a number of reasons the COVID-19 vaccines were developed more quickly, none of which reduces its safety profile.

For instance, scientists were not starting from scratch. Although SARS-CoV-2 was new to science, researchers have been studying coronaviruses for decades.

Also, because COVID-19 has touched every continent on earth, the process of vaccine development involved an unprecedented worldwide collaboration. And, while many scientific endeavors face funding difficulties, COVID-19 researchers received funding from a wide range of sponsors.

Another factor that slows vaccine development is recruiting volunteers. In the case of COVID-19, there was no shortage of people who wanted to help.

Also, under normal circumstances, clinical trials are run sequentially. But in this instance, scientists could run some trials simultaneously, which saved a great deal of time.

These factors and more meant that the vaccine could be developed swiftly without compromising safety.

In short: identifying the virus was quicker; we already had experience with similar pathogens; technology has moved on since the 1980s; every government on earth had a vested interest; and there were few financial restraints.

2. The vaccine will alter my DNA

Some COVID-19 vaccines, including the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, are based on messenger RNA (mRNA) technology. These vaccines work differently to traditional types of vaccine.

Classical vaccines introduce an inactivated pathogen or part of a pathogen to the body to “teach” it how to produce an immune response.

By contrast, an mRNA vaccine delivers the instructions for making a pathogen’s protein to our cells. Once the protein is created, the immune system responds to it, priming it to respond to future attacks by the same pathogen.

However, the mRNA does not hang around in the body, and it is not integrated into our DNA. Once it has provided the instructions, the cell breaks it down.

In fact, the mRNA will not even reach the cell’s nucleus, which is where our DNA is housed.

3. COVID-19 vaccines can give you COVID-19

The COVID-19 vaccines cannot give an individual COVID-19. Regardless of the type of vaccine, none contains the live virus. Any side effects, such as headache or chills, are due to the immune response and not an infection.

4. The vaccine contains a microchip

A YouGov poll conducted in the U.S. last year asked 1,640 people a range of questions about COVID-19. An incredible 28% of respondents believe that Bill Gates plans to use the COVID-19 vaccinations as a vehicle to implant microchips into the population.

According to some, this microchip will allow shadowy elites to track their every move. In reality, our mobile phones already complete that task effortlessly.

There is no evidence that any of the COVID-19 vaccines contains a microchip.

Although the specifics vary from conspiracy theory to conspiracy theory, some believe that the vaccine contains radio-frequency identification tags. These consist of a radio transponder, radio receiver, and transmitter. It is not possible to shrink these components to a size small enough to fit through the end of a needle.

5. COVID-19 vaccines can make you infertile

There is no evidence that the COVID-19 vaccines impact fertility. Similarly, there is no evidence that they will endanger future pregnancies.

This rumor began because of a link between the spike protein that is coded by the mRNA-based vaccines and a protein called syncytin-1. Syncytin-1 is vital for the placenta to remain attached to the uterus during pregnancy.

However, although the spike protein does share a few amino acids in common with syncytin-1, they are not even nearly similar enough to confuse the immune system.

The rumor appears to have begun courtesy of Dr. Wolfgang Wodarg. In December of last year, he petitioned the European Medicines Agency to halt COVID-19 vaccine trials in the European Union. Among his concerns was the syncytin-1 “issue” mentioned above.

Dr. Wodarg has a history of skepticism toward vaccines and has downplayed the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Wodarg and the former vice president and chief scientist of Pfizer Inc. pharmaceuticals joined voices to make claims about the vaccine producing infertility, thus stoking widespread fears.

However, there is no evidence that any COVID-19 vaccine affects fertility.

6. The COVID-19 vaccine contains fetal tissue

Over the years, anti-vaxxers have spread rumors that vaccines contain fetal tissue. Neither the COVID-19 vaccines nor any other vaccine contains any tissue from fetuses.

As Dr. Michael Head, a senior research fellow at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, told the BBC, “There are no fetal cells used in any vaccine production process.”

7. People who have had COVID-19 do not need the vaccine

Even people who have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 in the past should be vaccinated. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) write:

“Due to the severe health risks associated with COVID-19 and the fact that reinfection with COVID-19 is possible, [a] vaccine should be offered to you regardless of whether you already had [a SARS-CoV-2] infection.”

There is also a chance that the initial test produced a false positive — in other words, the test was positive, but there was no viral infection. For this reason, it is better to err on the side of caution.

8. After receiving the vaccine, you cannot transmit the virus

COVID-19 vaccines are designed to prevent people from becoming ill following a SARS-CoV-2 infection. However, a person who has been vaccinated may still be able to carry the virus, which means that they might also be able to transmit it.

Because scientists do not yet know whether the vaccines will prevent infection, once a person has been vaccinated, they should continue to wear a mask in public, wash their hands, and practice physical distancing as recommended by regional authorities.

9. Once I have been vaccinated, I can resume a normal life

Unfortunately, for the reasons mentioned above, this is not true.

10. The vaccine will protect against COVID-19 for life

Because scientists have only been studying the virus for around 1 year, we do not know how long immunity will last. According to the WHO:

“It’s too early to know if COVID-19 vaccines will provide long-term protection. […] However, it’s encouraging that available data suggest that most people who recover from COVID-19 develop an immune response that provides at least some period of protection against reinfection — although we’re still learning how strong this protection is and how long it lasts.”

It may be that we will need to have an annual COVID-19 shot, in the same way that we do with the flu shot.

11. People with preexisting conditions cannot take the vaccine

This is untrue. People with most preexisting conditions — including heart disease, diabetes, and lung disease — can take a COVID-19 vaccine. However, if anyone is concerned, it is always advisable to speak with a doctor.

In fact, because preexisting conditions, such as obesity and heart disease, can increase the risk of developing more severe COVID-19 symptoms, being vaccinated is even more important for people with preexisting health issues.

There is an exception: individuals who are allergic to any of the components of the vaccine should not have the shot. Anyone who has had an allergic reaction to any vaccine in the past should speak with their doctor.

However, the CDC recommend “that people with a history of severe allergic reactions not related to vaccines or injectable medications — such as food, pet, venom, environmental, or latex allergies — get vaccinated. People with a history of allergies to oral medications or a family history of severe allergic reactions may also get vaccinated.”

12. People with compromised immune systems cannot have the vaccine

Because the vaccine does not contain a live pathogen, it will not cause an infection. Therefore, individuals who have a compromised immune system can still take the vaccine. However, they may not build up immune protection to the same degree as someone with a fully functioning immune system.

The CDC also explain that few people who have a compromised immune system were involved in the vaccine trials:

“Immunocompromised individuals may receive [a] COVID-19 vaccination if they have no contraindications to vaccination. However, they should be counseled about the unknown vaccine safety profile and effectiveness in immunocompromised populations.”

13. Older adults cannot have the vaccine

This is a myth. Currently, in most countries where officials are rolling out the vaccine, older adults are being prioritized, as they are most at risk of severe illness.

Also, some of the clinical trials had specific subgroups that included older adults to check the vaccine’s safety in this population.

In Norway, 23 frail older adults died shortly after they received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. This, perhaps, helps explain why this myth is gaining traction.

The Norwegian Medicines Agency (NOMA) are currently investigating the situation. Steinar Madsen, a medical director at NOMA, believes that common adverse reactions, such as fever, nausea, and diarrhea, “may aggravate underlying disease in the elderly.”

Madsen also explained that “these are very rare occurrences, and they occurred in very frail patients with very serious disease.” He went on to add,

“We are now asking for doctors to continue with the vaccination but to carry out extra evaluation of very sick people whose underlying condition might be aggravated by it.”

The take-home

It is hard to believe that not much more than 1 year ago, COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2 were entirely unknown. Now, we have a number of viable, effective, and safe vaccines.

In this internet-fueled era, rumors grow and spread like wildfire. The addition of a significant dose of fear and anxiety provides the perfect petri dish in which to grow stubborn, dangerous myths.

The situation and the science are moving quickly, and the best advice is to ensure that you always take information from reliable sources and do not pay attention to powerful but misleading social media posts.

Learn how to tell if someone has COVID-19 or the flu here.

COVID-19 and the flu can cause similar symptoms. However, there are several differences between them.

The novel strain of coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) causes coronavirus disease 19 (COVID-19).

Both COVID-19 and the flu are respiratory illnesses that spread from person to person. This article will discuss the differences between COVID-19 and the flu.

Symptoms

The symptoms of the flu and COVID-19 have some differences.

People who have the flu will typically experience symptoms within 1–4 days. The symptoms for COVID-19 can develop between 1–14 days. However, according to 2020 research, the median incubation period for COVID-19 is 5.1 days.

As a point of comparison, the incubation period for a cold is 1–3 days.

The symptoms of COVID-19 are similar in both children and adults. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children typically present with fever and mild, cold-like symptoms, such as a runny nose and a cough.

The following table outlines the symptoms of COVID-19, the flu, and a cold.

Severity and mortality

The symptoms of COVID-19 and flu can range from mild to severe. Both can also cause pneumonia.

It is important to note that the World Health Organization (WHO) have classified mild symptoms of COVID-19 to mean that a person will not require hospitalization. The WHO classify mild cases to consist of symptoms including:

  • fever
  • cough
  • fatigue
  • loss of appetite
  • sore throat
  • headache

The CDC also lists the following as potential symptoms:

  • breathlessness
  • muscle pain
  • chills
  • new loss of taste or smell

According to the WHO, around 15% of COVID-19 cases are severe, and 5% are critical. Those in a critical state require a ventilator to breathe. The chance of severe and critical infection is higher with COVID-19 than the flu.

COVID-19 is also more deadly. According to the WHO, the mortality rate for COVID-19 appears to be higher than that of the flu.

Compared with the flu, research on COVID-19 is still in its early stages. These estimates may change over time.

Transmission

Both SARS-CoV-2 and the flu virus can spread through person to person contact.

Tiny droplets containing the viruses can pass from someone with the infection to someone else, typically through the nose and mouth through coughing and sneezing.

The virus can also live on surfaces. The WHO is not sure exactly how long the virus can survive, but it could be days.

According to the CDC, people can transmit the flu virus to people who are 6 feet (ft) away. According to the WHO, people should stay at least 6 ft away from anyone coughing or sneezing to help prevent the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 infection.

According to the WHO, the speed of transmission differs between the two viruses. The symptoms of flu appear sooner, and it can spread faster than the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The organization also indicate that people with flu can pass the virus on before they show any symptoms. A person can also pass on the SARS-CoV-2 infection even if they have no symptoms.

There are also differences in transmission between children and adults.

According to the WHO, the transmission of the flu from children to adults is common. However, based on early data it appears that it is more common for adults to pass the SARS-CoV-2 infection onto children. Children are less likely to develop symptoms.

The CDC recommend that people wear cloth face masks in public places where it is difficult to maintain physical distancing. This will help slow the spread of the virus from people who do not know that they have contracted it, including those who are asymptomatic. People should wear cloth face masks while continuing to practice physical distancing. 

Treatment

As flu has been around much longer than COVID-19, there are more treatment options.

Most people with the flu do not require medical treatment. But a doctor might prescribe antiviral drugs in some cases, which can reduce the symptoms by 1–2 days.

These antiviral drugs help the body fight the virus. They treat symptoms and reduce how long the illness lasts.

There are currently no antiviral drugs approved to treat COVID-19, although scientists are currently researching drugs in trials. When scientists have had more time to study the disease, the availability of antivirals to treat COVID-19 will likely increase.

Although there is currently no approved treatment or vaccination for COVID-19, there are ways to help treat the symptoms and any complications that can occur.

For mild cases, a person should remain home and undertake social distancing. Healthcare professionals may prescribe antipyretics to reduce the fever.

For more severe cases, a person may require supplemental oxygen or mechanical ventilation on a breathing machine to treat the respiratory problems that may occur.

Prevention

The most effective way of preventing the flu is through vaccination.

Many strains of influenza can cause infection. The most common strains vary depending on the season.

Doctors will try to predict what strains will be most common each season to select the right vaccine components.

The best way to prevent spreading the SARS-CoV-2 virus includes:

  • washing hands regularly
  • avoiding touching the face
  • keeping at least 6 ft away from anyone sneezing and coughing
  • covering the mouth when sneezing or coughing
  • staying at home if feeling unwell
  • working from home if possible
  • avoiding crowds and gatherings of any size

Causes

Both COVID-19 and the flu are viral infections.

Viruses are tiny microbes that survive by invading other living cells. These cells become host cells to the virus, which multiplies inside of them. They can then spread to new cells around the body.

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that cause respiratory infections. The SARS-CoV-2 causes the infection that leads to COVID-19.

There are two types of viruses that cause the flu — influenza A and B. There are also several subtypes of influenza A. Any of these viruses can cause the flu.

Summary

COVID-19 and flu share some similar symptoms. The symptoms of flu tend to occur faster and can have greater variation. But COVID-19 is more likely to lead to severe illness or death.

Both viruses spread via person to person contact. Flu spreads faster and is more likely to affect children.

As the flu has been around longer, there are several effective antiviral treatments and vaccines available. Researchers and scientists are developing these for COVID-19, but treatments and vaccines are not likely to be available soon.

The best way to prevent COVID-19 is to practice social distancing, which means avoiding any non-essential social contact or travel. It is essential to maintain good personal and domestic hygiene by washing the hands regularly and keeping surfaces and utensils clean.

Viral infections cause both COVID-19 and the flu. But COVID-19 is due to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and flu is from influenza A and B viruses.

How do COVID-19 vaccines compare with other existing?

The novelty of the COVID-19 vaccines may seem daunting for some, and it is natural for questions to arise on their effectiveness. In this feature, we examine the difference between effectiveness and efficacy, compare the COVID-19 frontrunner vaccines to other vaccines, such as the flu shot, and compare their safety considerations.

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date. Visit our coronavirus hub and follow our live updates page for the most recent information on the COVID-19 pandemic.

As Pfizer/BioNTech roll out their COVID-19 vaccine throughout the United Kingdom and the United States, the world wonders how effective it will be.

Looking at the three leading vaccines that we have previously reported on, Pfizer/BioNTech boasts 95% efficacy, the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine candidate has an average of 70% efficacy, while the Moderna vaccine candidate reportedly has 94.1% efficacy.

Effectiveness vs. efficacy — what is the difference?

Firstly, it is worth noting that “effectiveness” and “efficacy” are not the same. Despite news outlets frequently using them interchangeably, efficacy refers to how a vaccine performs under ideal lab conditions, such as those in a clinical trial. In contrast, effectiveness refers to how it performs in the real world.

In other words, in a clinical trial, a 90% efficacy means that there are 90% fewer cases of disease in the group receiving the vaccine compared with the placebo group.

However, the participants chosen for a clinical trial tend to be healthier and younger than those in the general population, and they generally have no underlying conditions. Furthermore, researchers do not normally include certain groups in these studies, such as children or pregnant people.

So, while a vaccine can prevent disease in a trial, we might see this effectiveness drop when administered to the wider population.

However, that is not in itself a bad thing.

Pfizer study shows vaccine effective against new variant

Scientists recently identified two new strains of SARS-CoV-2 — one of which had been discovered in the United Kingdom and the other in South Africa. A new Pfizer study concludes that its vaccine should be effective against the U.K. variant.

Both new variants, which appear to be more contagious, have mutations in a spike protein called N501Y. 

Because most vaccines currently under investigation essentially teach the immune system to respond to the spike proteins, some people have questioned whether the vaccines will be effective against the variants. 

The new study, which appears on a preprint server, is a combined effort from Pfizer and scientists at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

The researchers analyzed blood samples from 20 people who had received the Pfizer–BioNTech vaccine during previous clinical trials. 

They demonstrated that antibodies from vaccine recipients successfully fought off a virus with the N501Y mutation. The study has limitations, though. For instance, the variant first identified in South Africa has an additional mutation known as E484K, which the new study did not address. 

Importantly, the study has also not yet been peer-reviewed. Meanwhile, Pfizer’s chief scientific officer, Dr. Philip Dormitzer, acknowledges:

“It was a very reassuring finding that at least this mutation, which was one of the ones people are most concerned about, does not seem to be a problem.”

The authors of the preprint conclude: “The ongoing evolution of SARS-CoV-2 necessitates continuous monitoring of the significance of changes for vaccine coverage. This surveillance is accompanied by preparations for the possibility that a future mutation in SARS-CoV-2 might necessitate a vaccine strain change. Such a vaccine update would be facilitated by the flexibility of mRNA-based vaccine technology.”