Find out who should have the flu jab, when to have it and what the side effects are.
Flu vaccination is available every year on the NHS to help protect adults and children who are at risk of seasonal flu (influenza). If you’re otherwise healthy the flu will usually clear up on its own within a week, but at worst it can cause serious and potentially fatal complications like pneumonia.
Anyone who wants to lower their risk of getting the flu should get a flu vaccination! But the flu can be more severe for certain people including the elderly and pregnant women, who will be entitled to a free flu jab.
Who is entitled to a free flu jab?
Flu vaccination is particularly important for people who are at increased risk of developing complications if they get flu. The following groups of ‘at risk’ people are entitled to a free flu jab:
- People aged over 65 years of age.
- People living in long-stay residential care homes.
- Pregnant women.
- People who receive a carer’s allowance, or are the main carer for an elderly or disabled person who is at risk of falling ill.
- Anyone older than six months of age with an underlying health condition, such as diabetes, HIV infection, a weakened immune system, or long-term heart, kidney, liver, neurological or lung disease, including asthma.
Children aged 2 to 17 years are usually given the nasal spray flu vaccine, but if this isn’t suitable they’ll be offered the flu jab instead.
It’s also a good idea to have the flu jab if you live with someone who has a weak immune system, if you’re a carer, and if you’re a health or social care worker involved in direct patient care.
What types of flu vaccine are there?
In 2019, three types of flu vaccine are being offered by the NHS:
★ A nasal spray flu vaccine
This is a live vaccine for children aged 2-17 years that protects against four strains of flu (two of type A, which causes the worst epidemics, and two of type B, which most commonly affects children).
★ A quadrivalent injected flu vaccine
This flu jab is for adults aged 18-65 and also protects against four strains of flu. It will also be given to children aged six months and over who can’t have the live vaccine.
★ An adjuvanted trivalent flu vaccine
This flu jab for adults over 65 protects against three strains of flu (two type A and one type B). It’s been designed to stimulate the immune system more than previous flu vaccines and has been shown to be more effective at preventing flu in this older age group than the vaccines used in the last few years.
For adults over 65-years-old there is currently insufficient data to demonstrate a preference for either the adjuvanted trivalent vaccine or the quadrivalent influenza vaccine. For this reason, the NHS is offering either type of vaccine for free to adults in this age group.
Where can I get the flu jab?
People who fall into a risk group will be offered the flu vaccine for free at their GP or local pharmacy. Some midwives also offer this service.
If you can’t have the vaccine on the NHS you can still pay for it privately at some pharmacies, and some people may also be able to get it through their employer.
How does the flu jab work?
The flu jab contains inactivated extracts from different strains of the flu virus. It works by stimulating your immune system to produce antibodies against the flu virus. The antibodies stay in your body so that if you’re exposed to the flu virus naturally, your immune system can recognise it, attack it and prevent it from causing flu.
The flu jab works by stimulating your immune system to produce antibodies against the flu virus.
The flu virus is constantly changing its structure (mutating) and different strains become more or less common each year. Every year the World Health Organisation and the EU identify which strains are likely to be prevalent for that year’s flu season and new vaccines are produced to protect against these strains. This is why you need to have a flu vaccine every year.You’llmally be protected against flu within two to three weeks after having the vaccine. The length of the protection varies, but usually lasts 6 to 12 months.
Key facts about the flu jab
If you are considering getting the flu jab or you or someone in your family is eligible for a free flu vaccine, here are some key facts to consider:
- Having a flu vaccine is the best way to protect yourself and your family from flu.
- The flu jab cannot give you flu.
- The most common side effects are mild muscle aches, headache, fatigue, fever and a sore arm. These get better in a couple of days.
- The flu jab is free on the NHS for people over 65, pregnant women, anyone at risk of flu complications, carers and healthcare workers.
- You can get it from your GP and some pharmacies.
- You need to have the flu vaccine every year.
Who should not have the flu jab?
The majority of people can have the flu jab, but if you’re ill with a fever it’s best to postpone it until after you’ve recovered. You don’t need to postpone the vaccine for a minor illness like a cold.
The only other reasons to avoid having the vaccine are if you’ve had a serious allergic reaction to the flu vaccine in the past, or if you’re allergic to ingredients used in the manufacture of the vaccine. You’ll be asked about any allergies before you’re given the jab.
Some brands of the flu jab may not be suitable for people with a serious allergy to eggs or chicken protein. If this applies to you, make sure you tell the person giving you the vaccine, as there are brands of the flu vaccine that are safe for people with this type of allergy.
How is the flu jab given?
The flu jab is usually given as a single injection into the upper arm. Babies and young children who can’t have the nasal spray will be given the injection in their thigh.
If your child is under nine years of age and hasn’t had a flu vaccine before they’ll need a second dose of the flu jab at least four weeks after their first one. Children who’ve previously had a flu vaccine only need one dose.
Flu vaccine side-effects
The flu jab is generally well tolerated and any side-effects are usually mild and improve in a couple of days. The injected flu vaccine doesn’t contain live virus and can’t give you flu. Common flu jab side-effects include the following:
- Aching muscles or joints
- Feeling generally unwell
- Pain, swelling, redness, bruising or at the injection site
These reactions are due to the immune system responding to the vaccine and are not flu. They usually get better on their own within one to two days, but if you feel uncomfortable you can bring down a fever and ease aches and pains with paracetamol.
Allergic reactions to vaccines are extremely rare and anyone who is trained to administer vaccines is also trained in how to deal with them. Recovery is complete with treatment.
Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist if you want any more information about the possible side effects of the flu vaccine. If you think you or your child have experienced a side effect, did you know you can report this using the yellow card website?
Flu jab interactions
You can have the flu jab at the same time as other vaccines, but if so, the vaccines should be given into separate limbs.
You can have the flu vaccine if you’re taking any medicines, but just make sure the person giving you the jab knows what you’re taking.
If you’re taking a medicine that reduces the activity of your immune system, for example high-dose corticosteroids or immunosuppressant medicines, your body might not produce enough antibodies in response to the flu jab and you might need an extra dose. You should discuss this with your doctor.