The flu vaccination
Royal Voluntary Service and the NHS work together to encourage people to get flu safe with a flu jab from their GP or pharmacist.
Flu is a highly contagious infection that anyone can catch, and it can be serious for some. Its especially important that people at increased risk including those aged 65 or over, pregnant women, and those with health conditions have their free vaccination every year.
We hope that people with concerns about flu, carers and families, find this guide useful. Download a copy of The Flu Vaccination, print this page to give to someone you know. For alternative formats or other languages visit nhs.uk/fluvaccine
For more information, speak to your GP or local pharmacist, or visit nhs.uk/fluvaccine
What is flu? Isn’t it just a heavy cold?
Flu occurs every year, usually in the winter, which is why it’s sometimes called seasonal flu. It’s a highly infectious disease with symptoms that come on very quickly. Colds are much less serious and usually start gradually with a stuffy or runny nose and a sore throat. A bad bout of flu can be much worse than a heavy cold.
The most common symptoms of flu are fever, chills, headache, aches and pains in the joints and muscles, and extreme tiredness. Healthy individuals usually recover within two to seven days, but for some the disease can lead to hospitalisation, permanent disability or even death.
What causes flu?
Flu is caused by influenza viruses that infect the windpipe and lungs. And because it’s caused by viruses and not bacteria, antibiotics won’t treat it. However, if there are complications from getting flu, antibiotics may be needed.
How do you catch flu?
When an infected person coughs or sneezes, they spread the flu virus in tiny droplets of saliva over a wide area. These droplets can then be breathed in by other people or they can be picked up by touching surfaces where the droplets have landed. You can prevent the spread of the virus by covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze, and you can wash your hands frequently or use hand gels to reduce the risk of picking up the virus.
But the best way to avoid catching and spreading flu is by having the vaccination before the flu season starts.
How do we protect against flu?
Flu is unpredictable. The vaccine provides the best protection available against a virus that can cause severe illness. The most likely viruses that will cause flu are identified in advance of the flu season and vaccines are then made to match them as closely as possible.
The vaccines are given in the autumn ideally before flu starts circulating. During the last 10 years the vaccine has generally been a good match for the circulating strains.
What harm can flu do?
People sometimes think a bad cold is flu, but having flu can often be much worse than a cold and you may need to stay in bed for a few days. Some people are more susceptible to the effects of flu. For them, it can increase the risk of developing more serious illnesses such as bronchitis and pneumonia, or can make existing conditions worse. In the worst cases, flu can result in a stay in hospital, or even death.
Am I at increased risk from the effects of flu?
Flu can affect anyone but if you have a long-term health condition the effects of flu can make it worse even if the condition is well managed and you normally feel well. You should have the free flu vaccine if you are:
or have a long term condition such as:
- a heart problem
- a chest complaint or breathing difficulties, including bronchitis, emphysema or severe asthma
- a kidney disease
- lowered immunity due to disease or treatment (such as steroid medication or cancer treatment)
- liver disease
- had a stroke or a transient ischaemic attack (TIA)
- a neurological condition, e.g. multiple sclerosis (MS), cerebral palsy
- a learning disability
- a problem with your spleen, e.g. sickle cell disease, or you have had your spleen removed
- are seriously overweight (BMI of 40 and above)
This list of conditions isn’t definitive. It’s always an issue of clinical judgement. Your GP can 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.
Who should consider having a flu vaccination?
All those who have any condition listed above, or who are:
- aged 65 years or over
- living in a residential or nursing home
- the main carer of an older or disabled person
- a household contact of an immunocompromised person
- a frontline health or social care worker
- pregnant (please read the leaflet for more information)
- children of a certain age. (please read the leaflet for more information)
Will the flu vaccine protect me against COVID-19?
The flu vaccine won’t protect you against COVID-19. But it will help protect you against flu, which is an unpleasant and potentially serious infection that can cause complications leading to hospital admission. Helping to protect against flu is particularly important with COVID-19 in circulation because people vulnerable to COVID-19 are also at risk of complications from flu.
I had the flu vaccination last year. Do I need another one this year?
Yes; the flu vaccine for each winter helps provide protection against the strains of flu that are likely to be present and may be different from those circulating last year. For this reason we strongly recommend that even if you were vaccinated last year, you should be vaccinated again this year. In addition, protection from the flu vaccine may only last about six months so you should have the flu vaccine each flu season.
Will I be safe when I go for the flu vaccine if COVID-19 is still around?
While COVID-19 is in circulation, providers of flu vaccination will have measures in place to keep you safe. Staff giving the vaccine will be wearing protective equipment to protect both you and themselves from the virus. Appointment times may also be scheduled to reduce numbers in the waiting area or you may be asked not to arrive early.
I think I’ve already had flu, do I need a vaccination?
Yes; other viruses can give you flu-like symptoms, or you may have had flu but because there is more than one type of flu virus you should still have the vaccine even if you think you’ve had flu.
Is there anyone who shouldn’t have the vaccination?
Almost everybody can have the vaccine, but you should not be vaccinated if you have ever had a serious allergy to the vaccine, or any of its ingredients. If you are allergic to eggs or have a condition that weakens your immune system, you may not be able to have certain types of flu vaccine – check with your GP. If you have a fever, the vaccination may be delayed until you are better.
Will the flu vaccine protect me completely?
Because the flu virus can change from year to year there is always a risk that the vaccine does not match the circulating virus. During the last 10 years the vaccine has generally been a good match for the circulating strains.
How long will I be protected for?
The vaccine should provide protection throughout the current flu season.
What do I need to do now?
If you belong to one of the groups mentioned in this leaflet, it’s important that you have your flu vaccination.
Speak to your GP or practice nurse, or alternatively your local pharmacist, to book a vaccination appointment and get the best possible protection. For pregnant women, the vaccine may also be available through maternity services. The flu vaccine is free. So make an appointment to receive the vaccine.
Organisations wishing to protect their employees against flu (unless they are at risk) will need to make arrangements for the vaccinations to be given through their occupational health departments. These vaccinations are not available on the NHS and will have to be paid for by the employer.
If you are a frontline health or social care worker, find out what arrangements have been made at your workplace for providing flu vaccination. It’s important that you get protected.
Summary of those who are recommended to have the flu vaccine
- everyone aged 65 and over
- everyone under 65 years of age who has a medical condition, including children and babies over six months of age
- all pregnant women, at any stage of pregnancy
- all two- and three- year-old children (provided they were aged two or three years old on 31 August of the current flu season)
- all children in primary school
- all Year 7 secondary school-aged children
- everyone living in a residential or nursing home
- everyone who cares for an older or disabled person
- all frontline health and social care workers
For advice and information about the flu vaccination, speak to your GP, practice nurse or pharmacist.
It is best to have the flu vaccination in the autumn before any outbreaks of flu. Remember that you need it every year, so don’t assume you are protected because you had one last year.
Download The Flu Vaccination to give to someone you know.
Please exercise your common sense when considering this guide and whether to take any of the steps that may be suggested in it. Whilst we have taken reasonable care to ensure that any factual information is accurate and complete, most of the information in this guide is based on our views and opinions (and sometimes the views and opinions of the people or organisations we work with). As a result, we cannot make any promises about the accuracy or the completeness of the information and we don’t accept any responsibility for the results of your reliance on it.