What is flu?
Flu is an acute viral infection of the respiratory tract. Symptoms will usually include a fever, chills, headache, aching muscles, joint pain and fatigue. It is different to the common cold. It’s a highly infectious virus which spreads rapidly. Even people with mild or no symptoms can infect others.
Flu kills an average of 8,000 people every year, and it can be particularly serious in older adults, very young children, and people with underlying health conditions.
Why get the vaccine and are you eligible?
The flu vaccine remains the best defence we have against flu and protects those people who are most vulnerable.
Certain groups of people are at higher risk from flu. This includes adults aged 65 and over and people with weakened immune systems. This would include people on biologic therapies like anti TNF or anti IL 17A, on regular steroids or taking DMARDs such as methotrexate.
There isn’t a definitive list of conditions which are eligible for a free flu vaccine. It’s always an issue of clinical judgement. GPs are advised to assess you to take into account the risk of flu making any underlying illness you may have worse, as well as your risk of serious illness from flu itself. The vaccine should always be offered in such cases.
If you live with someone who has a weakened immune system, you may also be advised to have a flu vaccine. Speak to your GP or pharmacist about this.
Where to get the flu vaccine
You can have your NHS flu vaccine at your GP surgery or a local pharmacy offering the service. If you have your flu vaccine at a pharmacy, you don’t have to inform your GP – it is up to the pharmacist to do that.
How effective is the flu vaccine?
Studies have shown that the flu vaccine will help prevent you getting the flu. It won’t stop all flu viruses and the level of protection may vary, so it’s not a 100% guarantee that you’ll be flu-free, but if you do get flu after vaccination it’s likely to be milder and shorter-lived than it would otherwise have been.
Over time, protection from the injected flu vaccine gradually decreases and flu strains often change. So new flu vaccines are produced each year, which is why people advised to have the flu vaccine need it every year too.
A wider range of flu vaccines are now available which should offer better protection. This includes the ‘adjuvanted’ vaccine which was offered to those aged 65 years and over for the first-time last year and provided a higher level of protection compared to the standard non-adjuvanted vaccines in this age group.
In addition, a new cell-based vaccine which protects against four strains of flu (quadrivalent) will also be available for those aged 65 and over, and those under 65 with underlying medical conditions.
Flu vaccine side effects
Serious side effects of the injected flu vaccine are very rare. You may have a mild fever and aching muscles for a couple of days after having the vaccine, and your arm may be a bit sore where you were injected.
When to have your flu vaccine
The best time to have a flu vaccine is in the autumn, from the beginning of October to end of November.