Does the flu vaccine work? Your questions answered

Medical Director, UK Insurance at Bupa UK
20 September 2016

The flu vaccine is a great weapon in modern medicine’s battle against flu. At its most effective, it can reduce the risk of flu-related illness in up to six in 10 people during flu season. You may have read or noticed though, that the flu vaccine wasn’t as protective during some previous winters as it usually is. So you may even be wondering if it’s even worth getting the vaccine this year.

To help you make a decision, I’ve answered some of the most common questions about the flu vaccine below.

Woman blowing her nose

Who can have the flu vaccine?

There are certain at-risk groups of people who are recommended the flu vaccine and can have this on the NHS. However, if you don’t fall within any of these groups, the flu vaccine is now offered by lots of employers. Or you may even choose to pay for it yourself.

Why didn’t the vaccine work as well during previous winters?

The vaccine didn’t work so well because there was a mismatch. The strains (type) of virus in the vaccine didn’t closely match one of the strains of the virus that became the dominant (main) strain last year.

The World Health Organization (WHO) monitors the strains of flu virus carefully and recommends which strains should go into the vaccine. 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.

Is there any point in having the flu vaccine this year?

Yes. The WHO has made recommendations as to the strains that should be included in this year’s vaccine, to ensure it’s as effective as possible. There are many other reasons why it’s worth considering having the vaccine.

  • The vaccine can offer some protection against other flu viruses that have similarities to the strains in the vaccine.
  • The vaccine contains several different viruses, so even if one of them doesn’t closely match the flu strain, it can still protect you from other flu viruses that do.
  • The flu vaccine can help protect vulnerable people around you such as older people, pregnant women and children. If you don’t get the flu then you won’t spread it to them.
  • If you do get ill, having the vaccine may mean your illness is milder as you may already have some immunity.
  • If you get the flu it often means you’ll need to be off work. Prevention is the best way to stop getting ill and means your life won’t be interrupted by feeling poorly.

So will there really be a flu outbreak this winter?

We associate flu season with winter because it tends to occur during colder months. Yet temperatures have been warmer over the last couple of winters. So you might not think the risk of flu is going to be particularly high if it’s warm again this winter. However it’s difficult to say exactly how climate will affect flu season. For example, flu doesn’t just happen in cold climates. In tropical countries, an outbreak of flu can happen at any time of the year.

The flu season is very unpredictable, so if the weather is milder this coming winter, that doesn’t mean you’ll be immune from the flu.

How will I feel after having the vaccine? Will it make me feel ill?

You might worry that the vaccine may make you feel poorly after having it or even give you the flu. But it’s important to know that this won’t happen. A flu vaccine given via an injection contains an inactivated virus – that means the virus isn’t live. This means that it won’t give you the flu.

You might have a bit of redness and soreness on your arm, or thigh, where you had the injection. You might also get a mild headache and muscle aches, but these are nothing to worry about and should ease within one or two days.

If you know that you are allergic to eggs, however, make sure your doctor or nurse knows. This is so you can have a vaccine that hasn’t been prepared in hens’ eggs.

How can I deal with anxiety about having injections?

It’s completely understandable that if you have anxiety around having a needle injection then it’s going to put you off having any vaccines or injections. But there are some things you can do to help yourself in this situation.

One way is to gradually expose yourself to the situation in small steps. For example you might drive past your doctor surgery to begin with, and then you might go in and sit in the waiting area. You build up to it in small steps. By gradually experiencing what’s going to happen, the situation mightstart to feel less threatening to you.

You might also find it helpful to practise relaxation exercises – breathing exercises and meditation to help you feel calm. Then, you can call on this relaxed state of mind when you have an injection. This can take some time to master so it’s a good idea to practise your preferred method of relaxation quite a while in advance.

If you’re anxious, talk to your nurse about it. If they know how you feel, they will do everything they can to make the experience as easy as possible for you.

What if I choose not to have the flu vaccine?

If you choose not to have the vaccine, there is an increased chance that you may get flu. The vaccine doesn’t offer guaranteed protection, but it can help reduce your risk. There are over-the-counter medicines that you can help to ease your symptoms, but prevention really is the best plan of attack.

Other ways to protect yourself from picking up a virus or spreading one is to:

  • wash your hands with hot soapy water after using the toilet and before preparing food
  • cover your mouth if you cough or sneeze
  • throw any tissues away as soon as you’ve used them

Dr Luke James
Medical Director, UK Insurance at Bupa UK