The flu vaccine – what you need to know

Clinical Fellow at Bupa UK
31 October 2018

As the days grow colder and the long nights draw in, your thoughts may turn to woolly jumpers and hot water bottles. But along with the many traditions and festivities to be enjoyed at this time of year, also comes the unwanted cold and flu season.

If you catch the flu, your symptoms are likely to be much worse than a cold, and can take you a lot longer to recover from. Instead of just a runny nose, you may also have a headache, cough, fever, and feel shivery, tired or achey. But getting the flu vaccine, also known as the flu jab, can reduce your risk of catching flu and help you to stay healthy over winter.

Here I’ll answer some of the most commonly asked questions about the flu vaccine, so you’re armed with the facts you need to decide if it’s right for you.

Lady blowing her nose

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 likely to become more unwell if they do catch flu. These include:

If you’re part of these at-risk groups, you’ll be eligible for a free flu vaccine through the NHS.

It’s also recommended that you have the flu vaccine if you’re a healthcare professional who regularly sees patients, or if you’re a carer for a vulnerable person. This is to prevent you from passing the virus on to them or being unable to care for them should you become ill.

You can have the flu vaccine if you’re pregnant, but be sure to let your doctor or nurse know first so they can explain the precautions to you.

If you think you already have the flu or are unwell, it’s best to wait until you’re feeling better to have the 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 doctor or nurse for advice.

Can children have the flu vaccine?

Children can have the flu vaccine on the NHS if they’re:

  • over six months old and have a serious health condition
  • aged two or three
  • in reception class or years one to five at school

Most children over two will be given the vaccine as a nasal spray instead of an injection, either at school or at your local GP practice. Ask your doctor or nurse for more advice.

Where can you get the flu vaccine?

You can book an appointment to get the flu vaccine at your GP surgery or at participating 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 an onsite nurse or by applying for a voucher which you can use at a pharmacy. Or you may choose to pay for the flu vaccine yourself.

How effective is the flu vaccine?

It’s hard to say for sure how effective the flu vaccine is. This is because each year there are different dominant strains or ‘types’ of flu, so the vaccine changes each year to try to match this. Having the flu vaccine doesn’t guarantee that you won’t catch the flu in winter, but it will reduce your risk of getting ill. Having the flu vaccine each year will give you the best chance of protection.

Why should I have the flu vaccine?

Apart from reducing the risk of you catching flu, there are also lots of other reasons why it’s worth considering having the flu vaccine.

  • If you do catch the flu, your symptoms may be milder if you’ve had the vaccine because you may already have some immunity to it.
  • The vaccine contains several different viruses, so even if it doesn’t match the one which is dominant this winter, it can help to protect you from the other types of flu going round.
  • By protecting yourself, you’re also protecting your children, elderly relatives or pregnant women who are more vulnerable. If you don’t get the flu then you won’t spread it to them.
  • If you get the flu you’ll need to be off work. So getting the flu vaccine increases your chances of staying well and means your life won’t be interrupted by getting sick.

When’s the best time to 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 – around October-November time. But you can still get the flu vaccine later in winter if you’ve forgotten to book your appointment earlier in the year.

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 there is nothing to worry about as the flu vaccine is considered very safe.

You might have a bit of redness and soreness on your arm if you have the injection. With any of the flu vaccines, you might get a mild headache and aching muscles after your vaccination, but these are nothing to worry about and should ease within one or two days.

Why didn’t the flu vaccine work well in previous years?

You may have heard in the media that the flu vaccine didn’t work as well as hoped at preventing flu in some recent winters. This is because there are different ‘strains’ of flu which go around each winter, and it’s hard to predict which the dominant strain will be each year. The World Health Organization (WHO) monitors the strains of flu virus carefully and recommends which strains should go into the vaccine to ensure it’s as effective as possible. However, new strains are always appearing and the virus changes constantly. It sometimes means that a new strain can appear and become dominant after the vaccine has already been produced. By this point, it’s too late to create a new one for the season.

For advice on how to manage the symptoms and stop the spread of flu, take a look at our information on seasonal flu.

Do you know how healthy you truly are? Bupa health assessments give you a clear overview of your health and a view of any future health risks. You'll receive a personal lifestyle action plan with health goals to reach for a happier, healthier you.

Dr Nicola Read
Clinical Fellow at Bupa UK