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 2 to 7 days but, for some, the disease can lead to hospitalisation, permanent disability or even death.
The causes of 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 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 should 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 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.
The harm flu can 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.
Those 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:
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.
We want to reduce the chances of those vulnerable to COVID-19 from getting flu.
Those who should consider having a flu vaccination
All those who have any condition listed above, or who are:
In 2020, more people are being offered the free flu vaccine than ever before, including the over-50s.
Household contacts of those on the NHS Shielded Patient List are being offered the flu vaccine this year
We want to keep those who are most vulnerable to COVID-19 well this winter and we do not want them to catch flu. To reduce the chance of a person who has an underlying health condition catching flu from members of their household, we will be offering them the flu vaccine. If you live with someone who is on the NHS Shielded Patient List for COVID-19, or if you expect to share accommodation with them on most days over the winter, making close contact unavoidable, you should ask for a free flu vaccine.
By having the vaccination, household contacts of the shielded can reduce their chances of getting flu and spreading it to the person they live with who is more vulnerable.
The flu vaccine doesn’t provide protection against COVID-19
The flu vaccine won’t protect you from 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.
If you are pregnant
All pregnant women should have the flu vaccine to protect themselves and their babies. The flu vaccine can be given safely at any stage of pregnancy, from conception onwards.
Pregnant women benefit from the flu vaccine because it will:
If you are pregnant and think you have flu
If you have flu symptoms, you should talk to your doctor urgently, because if you do have flu there is a prescribed medicine that might help (or reduce the risk of complications), but it needs to be taken as soon as possible after the symptoms appear.
You should have the flu vaccination each flu season
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 6 months so you should have the flu vaccine each flu season.
Safety measures for COVID-19
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 – please arrive at the exact time of your appointment.
You should still have the vaccination even if you think you’ve already had flu
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.
Children and the flu vaccination
If you have a child over 6 months of age who has one of the conditions listed above, they should have a flu vaccination. All these children are more likely to become severely ill if they catch flu, and it could make their existing condition worse. Talk to your GP about your child having the flu vaccination.
The flu vaccine does not work well in babies under 6 months of age so it is not recommended. This is why it is so important that pregnant women have the vaccination – they will pass on some immunity to their baby that will protect them during the early months of their life.
Some other groups of children are also being offered the flu vaccination. This is to help protect them against the disease and help reduce its spread both to other children, including their brothers or sisters, and, of course, their parents and grandparents. This will help you to avoid the need to take time off work because of flu or to look after your children with flu.
The children being offered the vaccine this year, are:
For more information on children and flu vaccination, see NHS.UK.
The types of flu vaccine available
There are several types of flu vaccine. You will be offered one that is most effective for you, depending upon your age, from the following:
The flu vaccine be given to your child at the same time as other vaccines
The flu vaccine can be given at the same time as all routine childhood vaccines. The vaccination can go ahead if your child has a minor illness such as a cold, but may be delayed if your child has an illness that causes a fever.
People 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.
Children who shouldn’t have the vaccination
Children may not be able to have the nasal vaccine if they:
The nasal vaccine contains gelatine derived from pigs (porcine gelatine)
The nasal vaccine contains a highly processed form of gelatine (porcine gelatine), which is used in a range of many essential medicines. The gelatine helps to keep the vaccine viruses stable so that the vaccine provides the best protection against flu. The nasal vaccine is offered to children as it is more effective in the programme than the injected vaccine. This is because it is easier to administer and considered better at reducing the spread of flu to others, who may be more vulnerable to the complications of flu.
However, if your child is at high risk from flu due to one or more medical conditions or treatments and can’t have the nasal flu vaccine, they should have the flu vaccine by injection. Some people may not accept the use of porcine gelatine in medical products. You should discuss your options with your nurse or doctor.
Potential side effects
Side effects of the nasal vaccine may commonly include a runny or blocked nose, headache, tiredness and some loss of appetite. Those having the injected vaccine may get a sore arm at the site of the injection, a low-grade fever and aching muscles for a day or 2 after the vaccination. Serious side effects with either vaccine are uncommon.
Level of protection
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.
The vaccine should provide protection throughout the current flu season.
What you need to do
If you belong to one of the groups mentioned in this guidance, it’s important that you have your flu vaccination.
Speak to your GP or practice nurse 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.