As the colder months arrive and we approach winter, healthcare professionals across the UK call for at-risk groups to book in for a flu jab. There are many questions about the flu vaccine and why you should get vaccinated or not.
We’re here today to discuss the topic, covering everything from symptoms, effectiveness of the jab and who should and shouldn’t get it. So if you’re looking to learn more please read on.
What is flu?
Flu (influenza) is a highly infectious respiratory illness caused by the influenza virus. It often spreads through the air from coughing and sneezing, where infected droplets land on others and are breathed in. Flu affects people of all ages and, whilst unpleasant, clear ups within a week in healthy people.
Flu is most severe in older people and those with chronic health issues, such as these conditions, because it attacks the immune system and can lead to more serious health conditions such as pneumonia, sinus infections and worsening of existing conditions such as asthma.
What are the symptoms of flu?
Symptoms range from mild to very severe. The most common symptoms of the flu include:
- Muscular pain
- Sore throat
- Blocked nose
It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between a cold and the flu. However, a cold is much less severe so you will see reduced symptoms. A cold also develops gradually whilst flu symptoms will hit you suddenly and make you weak, usually resulting in being bed-ridden for a couple of days.
What is the flu jab?
According to the CDC:
Traditional flu vaccines (called “trivalent” vaccines) are made to protect against three flu viruses; an influenza A (H1N1) virus, an influenza A (H3N2) virus, and aninfluenza B virus. There are also flu vaccines made to protect against four flu viruses (called quadrivalent vaccines)”
Because the flu virus mutates and changes all the time the vaccination is required yearly to protect against new strains.
Who should get the flu vaccine?
Whilst anyone can get flu, it is more severe in those with existing health conditions and younger children as well as the over 65s. Vaccinations are strongly recommended for:
- People over the age of 65.
- Pregnant women.
- Those who are morbidly obese.
- Those living in a care home or other residential long-stay facilities.
- Health and social care workers.
- Those with long term health conditions such as heart, liver and neurological disease, severe asthma and diabetes.
- Those with weakened immunity.
If you’re still unsure about whether you should be vaccinated, speak to your GP or pharmacist.
How does the vaccine work and is it effective?
The flu jab causes your immune system to produce antibodies to the flu virus so that if you come in contact with the virus, the antibodies attack it. The 2016 vaccine was expected to be 40-90% effective. Studies conducted have shown that flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40% and 60% among the overall population during seasons when most circulating flu viruses are well-matched to the flu vaccine.
In general, current flu vaccines tend to work better against influenza B and influenza A(H1N1) viruses and offer lower protection against influenza A(H3N2) viruses. (Source: CDC)
Does the flu vaccine work the same for everyone?
While the flu vaccine is the best way to prevent the flu, protection can vary widely depending on who is being vaccinated (in addition to how well matched the flu vaccine is with circulating influenza viruses).
Some people, including young children, seniors and people with chronic illnesses might not respond as well to vaccination due to weakened immune systems, but the flu vaccine still may provide some protection.
Is it safe?
The vaccination has been given for decades to millions across the world. Severe reactions are very rare. You may receive some mild side effects such as soreness in the arm where you received the jab and cold symptoms such as runny nose or a sore throat but this will only last a day or two. Many people have no side effects at all.
Contrary to popular belief, the flu vaccine will not give you flu!
When should I get vaccinated?
October to early November is the best time. The vaccination takes around two weeks to start protecting against flu so it’s best to get it before winter is in full swing. However, if you have missed this period, you can still receive the flu jab later in the winter.
How do I get vaccinated?
Your doctor or pharmacist can administer the vaccination. We recommend you make an appointment as soon as possible to ensure that the vaccine is fully effective.
The flu jab is offered free on the NHS to:
- “adults over the age of 18 at risk of flu (including everyone aged 65 and over)
- pregnant women
- children aged six months to two years at risk of flu”
The vaccination is also offered in the form of a nasal spray to:
- “children aged two, three and four years old plus children in school years one, two and three.
- children aged two to 17 years at a particular risk of flu”
Remember if you are still not sure whether you qualify for a free flu jab, speak to a health professional. They will be able to advise you further.