The flu vaccine: what you need to know

27th Oct 2016

Not sure if you or your children really need a flu vaccine, wondering where to get it, or worried about its safety? Here are the facts …

What’s the flu vaccine, exactly?

In short, it’s your best available protection against flu, an unpredictable virus that can cause severe illness. It’s available for free on the NHS for some young children, most of whom will be offered the nasal spray, and to people most at risk.

Each year, scientists identify the three or four strains of virus that are most likely to cause flu in the UK that winter.

They then make a vaccine to match these strains as closely as possible. So having the flu vaccine will help protect you against the most common strains that season.

But flu’s not that bad, is it?

Flu viruses are highly infectious and can really wipe you out. It’s worse than a cold.

Symptoms come on suddenly (unlike with a cold, where onset tends to be gradual) and can include a fever, chills, headache, aches and pains in the joints and muscles, and extreme tiredness. This can often last several days.

Healthy people may recover from flu within a week, but, for others, flu is more serious and they may develop complications, such as bronchitis or pneumonia. In the worst cases, flu can result in a stay in hospital, or even death.

In children, flu can be really nasty, and they can spread it around the whole family, including parents and grandparents.

A survey by Netmums* found that 40% of parents who choose not to have their two to four-year-old child vaccinated, said it was because they thought they were healthy.

In fact, children under the age of five have the highest hospital admission rates for flu compared to other age groups.

*Netmums surveyed 731 users between 26 and 27 September 2016.

Where and when do you get the vaccine?

Parents of children aged two, three and four** will need to take their child to their GP practice, while those in Key Stage 1 (years 1, 2 and 3 – age five to eight)*** are offered the flu vaccine at school (you’ll be contacted to give consent first).

It’s better to have the vaccine in autumn, before the viruses start circulating. So don’t delay if you’re invited.

Speak to your GP or pharmacist if you haven’t had an invite to have the flu vaccine by November.

**i.e. born between 1 September 2011 and 31 August 2014
***i.e. born between 1 September 2008 and 31 August 2011

If you’re invited for a vaccine, you’ll probably be asked to make an appointment with the practice nurse or midwife at your GP’s surgery or maternity unit.

Some community pharmacies also offer the jab to adults, and will then inform your doctor that you’ve had it.

Who’s eligible for free flu vaccinations?

The NHS is offering all pregnant women the vaccine, all children aged two to seven, all adults aged 65 and over and those in at-risk groups, including:

children and adults with an underlying condition that puts them at risk (including babies over six months). This is usually a long-term heart or respiratory condition, such as asthma
children or adults with weakened immune systems (e.g. are undergoing treatment for cancer)
anyone living in a residential or care home
anyone caring for an elderly or disabled person
anyone who regularly comes into contact with someone who has a weakened immune system.
All frontline health and social care workers will be offered the vaccination through their employers.

What if I’m not eligible but I want one?

If you’re not in one of the at-risk groups, it’s possible to pay to have the flu vaccine privately, at participating pharmacies.

Some companies offer them to employees, so ask your HR department.

How long will it protect me or my child for?

The flu vaccine is designed to help protect people against what experts think will be the main strains of influenza over a season. Because viruses change from year to year, you or your child will need to have a new vaccine next year.

Of course, you might still be susceptible to other strains of the virus. And the main viruses can mutate, so there’s no 100% guarantee you won’t get ill, but the flu vaccine is the best protection against flu.

Does the vaccine hurt?

You may feel a small sting, but it’s no more painful than any other injection. And, of course, it’s over in seconds. Your arm may ache afterwards.

If you have a needle phobia, do speak to your nurse or pharmacist before having the jab. They’ll be able to put you at ease and make sure you don’t see it.

If you’re worried about your child having it (especially at school when you won’t be with them for cuddles), rest assured the kids’ version of the vaccine isn’t a jab. It’s a simple nasal spray, easily and quickly administered.

Are there any side effects?

Whether you’re concerned about side effects for you or your children, remember most are minor and may not occur at all.

We know from our survey that over a third of women who choose not to have a flu jab during pregnancy are concerned about the safety of the flu vaccine.

Studies have shown that the flu vaccine is safe during any stage of pregnancy, from the first few weeks up to your expected due date. The vaccine doesn’t carry risks for either you or your baby.

If you have the injection, you may have a bit of a sore arm, aching muscles or a low-grade fever for a day or two.

The most likely side effect from the nasal spray (given to children) is your little one may have a runny or blocked nose, perhaps a headache, tiredness and reduced appetite, again just for a couple of days.

Oh, and it’s a myth that the flu vaccine can cause flu.

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