Do you need to get a flu jab? Who is most at risk from the flu virus? We answer common questions about the flu vaccine.
What is the flu?
Flu (short for influenza) is a very common illness caused by a viral infection. It is quite infectious and is spread by the germs in our coughs and sneezes, which can live on hands and on surfaces for up to 24 hours.
If you think you have the flu, try to reduce the risk of spreading it by washing your hands often (for 20 seconds, with warm water and soap), coughing and sneezing into tissues rather than your hands, and disposing of these tissues as soon as possible.
- How do I know if I have the flu?
Is it a cold or the flu? This is a very common conundrum, as the two do share symptoms.
However, colds tend to only really affect your nose and throat, while the flu can affect your whole body. You’ll also likely feel much worse with the flu than a cold. Influenza can make you feel absolutely exhausted and stop you from carrying on as normal.
- How bad is having the flu?
You might experience a host of unpleasant symptoms, including fever, aches, exhaustion, coughing and sneezing, sore throat and headaches, difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, an upset stomach and even being sick.
For most people, the flu can be very unpleasant, but is nothing to worry about. It should get better on its own.
However, if you are in one of the at risk groups (explained below), you may be at greater risk. The flu can make certain people seriously ill, so it’s important to get the vaccine if you fall into this group.
- How long does flu last for?
Flu symptoms can be very unpleasant, but most healthy adults will start to feel better after a week or two.
- How can I recover from the flu faster?
The best ways to look after yourself if you have the flu are:
- rest and sleep as much as possible
- stay warm
- stay hydrated and eat well
- take over the counter painkillers to lower your temperature and reduce your symptoms
Who is most at risk from the flu?
Groups most at risk of flu infection and/or of developing serious symptoms should they catch it include:
- people aged 65 or over
- people with a weakened immune system
- pregnant women
- those living in residential care long-term
- people with certain long-term medical conditions (including heart disease, respiratory conditions, learning disability and certain other chronic conditions)1
If you are unsure whether you fall into one of the above groups, ask your GP.
What is the flu vaccine?
The flu jab (or flu vaccine) is a vaccination against known flu viruses. It’s a safe and very effective vaccine that offers important protection for vulnerable people against known strains of flu. It also stops you from spreading flu to other people, who might be at greater risk than you.
For adults and children under two, the vaccination is given by injection.
Most children aged two to 17 will have the vaccination via nasal spray, though if they can’t for any reason, they can also have an injection.
- What are the side effects of the flu jab?
Common side effects of the flu vaccine include a bit of a temperature, a sore arm where the needle went in, and muscle aches.
These symptoms normally last one or two days.
- Can you still get the flu after a flu shot?
The flu vaccine does not offer 100% protection against flu. It is still possible to get the flu after a vaccination, though it is much less likely.
If this does happen, however, you will probably have a milder version that doesn’t last as long.
Who is eligible for a free flu jab in the UK?
Everyone in the at-risk groups discussed above is eligible for a free NHS flu vaccination in the UK.
In addition to this list, a free jab is also offered to frontline health workers such as nurses, doctors and certain care workers. These people are often in contact with vulnerable people, and the flu jab can prevent them from passing the virus on to people who might be endangered by it.
You can get an NHS flu jab at GP surgeries, certain pharmacists, and at midwife centres if you’re pregnant.
Is there anyone who should avoid the flu jab?
If you have an egg allergy, make sure to mention it at the time of booking your jab, as certain vaccines contain eggs (though not all).
It is very rare for anyone to be allergic to the flu vaccine, but if you have had a reaction previously, you probably won’t be able to have the flu jab again.
When should you get the flu jab?
Flu season lasts from September to March, so it’s best to get yours as soon as possible. However, even if you can’t or don’t get a flu jab until later in the season, it will still be effective.
Is the flu jab more important in 2020 in light of COVID-19?
The simple answer is yes.
Research by Public Health England suggests that people who were infected with both the flu virus and the coronavirus during the early part of 2020 (January-April) had a higher risk of severe illness and even death.2
People considered at high risk from the flu are the same people considered at high risk from the coronavirus.
So, it is more important than ever that people considered to be at increased risk from flu or COVID-19 have the flu vaccination this year.
In light of this, in 2020 the free vaccine is being offered to the highest number of people ever. New additions to the list of those eligible for a free vaccine include:
- all primary school children (via school)
- year seven children (via school)
- two- and three-year-olds (via GPs)
- people living in households with those on the NHS Shielded Patient List
- a wider range of social care workers
- 50- to 64-year-olds
If you are not sure whether you qualify for a free vaccine, speak to your GP, who will be able to tell you.
Even if you aren’t considered at risk, it is a good idea to have a flu vaccine. It could protect not only you but others around you from the flu virus.
All major pharmacists are offering appointments that take only around 15 minutes and tend to cost less than £15. Many of our hospitals are offering the vaccine, too, so it’s worth getting in touch with your local BMI Hospital.
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1NHS; flu vaccine
2Record numbers offered flu vaccine as those with flu and COVID-19 more likely to die