The flu vaccine: what you need to know

Justin Hayde-West
Pharmaceutical Manager at Bupa UK
14 October 2021
Next review due October 2024

Last year, a record number of people had the flu vaccine, and this year it’s more important than ever. Experts predict that levels could be up to 50 percent higher than a typical flu season, it could also start earlier.

Here I’ll explain what you need to know about the flu vaccine and answer some FAQs.

Lady blowing her nose

Why is the flu vaccine so important this year?

Last year, flu levels across the world were low because lockdowns, social distancing and face coverings meant we weren’t as exposed to the flu. This means we now have a lower level of immunity to it. This winter sees us return to the social contact levels we had before the pandemic. It is the first year that COVID-19 and flu will be circulating at the same time.

Nineteen million people had the flu jab last winter, and this year it’s being offered to 35 million people.

Getting a flu vaccine is important because:

  • many people who are at risk from the flu are also at risk from COVID-19
  • if you catch both COVID-19 and flu at the same time, you may be at higher risk of becoming seriously unwell
  • people who aren’t experiencing flu symptoms can still pass it on to other people who may be at risk of serious illness

Some symptoms of the flu are similar to the symptoms of COVID-19. For example, having a headache, runny nose, cough, muscle aches and pains, and a high temperature. This means a test is the only way to tell which virus you have.

This winter we may have lower immunity to flu

Will the flu vaccine protect me from coronavirus?

No. The flu vaccine will not protect you against getting coronavirus. It is designed to protect you from the flu.

However, for people who are at high risk and people over 50, COVID-19 booster vaccines are being rolled out this autumn and winter too. Depending on supply and availability you may be able to have the flu and COVID-19 booster vaccine together. Or you will have two separate appointments.

Why should I have the flu vaccine?

The flu vaccine is the best way to avoid getting the flu. Apart from reducing the risk of you catching flu, there are also other reasons why it’s worth having the flu vaccine.

  • If you do catch the flu, your symptoms may be milder if you’ve had the vaccine.
  • By protecting yourself, you’re also protecting other people who are more vulnerable.

Who can have the flu vaccine?

Anyone in the UK can have the flu vaccine. But, some groups of people are specifically advised to have one. This is because they’re either at a higher risk of catching flu, or more likely to become very unwell if they do catch it. These include people who have:

  • a heart problem
  • an illness which causes breathing difficulties, such as asthma
  • kidney or liver disease
  • a weakened immune system
  • had a stroke or a transient ischaemic attack (TIA) – sometimes called a ‘mini-stroke’
  • diabetes
  • a neurological condition
  • a BMI of 40 or over

The flu vaccine is also available to:

  • anyone aged 65 and over
  • children aged two to 16
  • people who live in care homes
  • frontline health and social care staff
  • carers or if you’re in close contact with someone who is immunocompromised

If you’re part of these at-risk groups, you can have a free flu vaccine through the NHS. Speak to your GP if you think you might benefit from a free flu vaccine, but your circumstances aren’t mentioned in the section above. Your doctor will be able to look at your medical history and make a decision based on your personal situation.

Should people who are pregnant have the flu vaccine?

Yes. You should have a flu vaccine if you’re pregnant. Having the vaccine reduces your risk of serious complications while you’re pregnant. It also helps protect your baby from flu once they’re born.

People who are trying for a baby or pregnant should get the flu vaccine

Can children have the flu vaccine?

Yes. Children can have the flu vaccine. It’s usually given as a nasal spray instead of an injection if they’re older than two years and otherwise healthy. If they go to school, they will usually receive their vaccination there. Or it can be given at your GP surgery.

This year, children can have the flu vaccine for free on the NHS if they’re:

  • aged between two and 15 years
  • aged over six months and also have a serious health condition

Children aged 2 to 15 can have the flu vaccine for free

Is there anybody who shouldn’t have the flu vaccine?

You shouldn’t have the flu vaccine if you’ve had a serious allergic reaction to the vaccine in the past.

If you’re allergic to eggs or egg products, you might not be able to have the usual flu vaccine. There are different vaccines available, so speak to your GP or nurse for advice.

If you’re feeling unwell, for example, with a mild cold, you should wait until you’re feeling better to have the vaccine.

If you’ve had symptoms of coronavirus, you shouldn’t go to your vaccination appointment until it’s safe. Phone your GP or pharmacist beforehand if you’re not sure. This helps to protect you, the person giving you your vaccine, and vulnerable people who may also be attending an appointment.

If you're allergic to egg or egg products you may need a different type of flu vaccine

How effective is the flu vaccine?

Having a flu vaccine is the most effective way to reduce your risk of catching flu. However, having the flu vaccine doesn’t guarantee that you won’t catch the flu.

There are different types of flu, known as ‘strains’. Each year, the flu vaccine has to be changed to try and match the strains you can catch that winter. It’s also more effective some years than others. This, depends on whether the vaccine is a good match for the type of flu going around. Having the flu vaccine each year will give you the best chance of protection.

The flu vaccine takes 14 days to develop a full immune response.

What are the side-effects of the flu vaccine?

Some people worry that they will feel unwell after having the flu vaccine, or that they will get the flu. But the injectable flu vaccine cannot give you flu, and flu vaccines are considered to be very safe.

You might have a bit of redness and soreness on your arm if you receive the vaccine as an injection. You might also get a mild headache and aching muscles after your vaccination. These side-effects are your body’s immune system responding and is nothing to worry about. Any side-effects should go away within a couple of days.

The side-effects of the flu vaccine are usually mild

Where can I get the flu vaccine?

You can book an appointment to get the flu vaccine at your GP surgery or at some pharmacies. If you’re pregnant, you may be able to get the vaccine through your midwife.

Lots of employers now offer the flu vaccine to their employees. This might be with a nurse at your place of work, or by applying for a voucher which you can use at a pharmacy.

You can also choose to pay for the flu vaccine yourself.

When should I get the flu vaccine?

Having the flu vaccine will cover you for one season. So, it’s important to have the vaccine each year at the beginning of autumn. The flu vaccination programme is starting in September, throughout autumn and early winter. However, you can still get the flu vaccine later in the year if you’ve been unable to book an appointment before then.

Becoming unwell or developing an injury can be disruptive to our busy lives; which is why our health insurance aims to help you get back on your feet sooner rather than later, so you can get back to doing the things you enjoy.

Justin Hayde-West
Justin Hayde-West
Pharmaceutical Manager at Bupa UK

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