Winter is only just around the corner, and it’s the season for cold weather, festivities, and wrapping up warm. But before you start getting cosy and turning up the thermostat at home, there’s something else you should think about first.
Winter is also the season that flu is rife. The common viruses spread easy in cold temperatures, and flu season tends to be at its highest in December and January. Luckily, it’s easier than ever to avoid becoming ill, and it’s all thanks to the flu vaccine.
What is in the flu jab?
The flu vaccine, commonly called the “flu jab” changes each year. It usually contains strains from several different viruses that are identified by the World Health Organisation (WHO) ahead of time. The strains that go into the vaccines are decided after researching which viruses seem to be circulating worldwide, so even if you had the jab last year, it’s most likely to contain different strains this year.
There are several different types of vaccine that all protect against the same strains, but some might be more suitable than others. Children aged between 2-17 tend to have the nasal spray vaccine, whilst adults are offered the injection.
The flu jab works by introducing your body to an inactive, or “dead” strain of each virus, which teaches your immune system to create antibodies to fight them without making you ill. This means that your body is equipped with the tools that it needs to fight the flu strains if it comes into contact with live versions of them.
This season, (2019/2020), the flu jab contains 4 strains of flu, two type A (the most severe) and two type B, which WHO have identified as being the most likely strains to infect people this year.
Should I have the flu jab?
The flu jab is the safest and most reliable way to prevent flu and flu-related complications. The 2019 flu jab is being offered to more people than ever on the NHS, and it’s recommended if you’re over the age of 65, or have a chronic health condition that might put you at risk of experiencing serious complications from flu.
According to the NHS, this year, all primary school children are being offered the nasal spray vaccine, whilst adults that are eligible for the annual jab include:
- Pregnant women
- Those that are in residential or long-stay care facilities
- Those receiving carer’s allowance or are the main carer for an elderly or disabled person
- Those working in frontline health or social care (though this is the responsibility of your employer)
- Adults with chronic health conditions such as respiratory diseases, heart disease, kidney disease, liver disease, neurological problems, learning disabilities, cerebral palsy, diabetes, spleen disorders, a weakened immune system or those with a BMI of over 40.
If you’re eligible for the flu vaccine, your GP surgery should notify you. If you still aren’t sure, you can contact them, or ask your local pharmacy to check if you qualify for the free flu jab.
Even if you don’t automatically qualify for the vaccine on the NHS, you can pay for it privately, with most surgeries and pharmacies offering it for under £20. It’s always worth protecting yourself from the flu, even if you need to pay for it, as without it, you may end up losing more money by being off sick from work, let alone feeling really unwell.
If you decide to go ahead with the 2019 flu jab, it’s best to do it as soon as possible. The vaccine can take between 10-14 days to protect you against the flu virus, and given that most people are affected in December or January, you’ll want to be fully protected in time for the peak of the season. If you decide to have the vaccine at your GP surgery, you’ll probably need to phone ahead and ask what their procedure is. Some surgeries require you to book appointments, whilst others have drop-in days for certain age groups. The alternative option is to get the jab from a pharmacy. Appointments aren’t needed for these, but it’s always best to ring beforehand to see if they have the vaccine in stock, or when would be the best time for you to go.
Does the flu jab give you flu?
The short answer is no. Whilst the flu vaccine contains an inactive version of this season’s flu strains, it can’t actually give you the flu. Even live versions of the vaccine, such as the nasal sprays offered to children can’t make you poorly as the dosage of the virus is so low that a healthy immune system is able to fight it before it causes any trouble.
However, each year, there are still reports of people suffering from the flu even after being vaccinated. Unfortunately, no flu vaccine can prevent every type of flu, so if you find that you’re suffering with symptoms despite receiving the vaccine, it’s possible that you’ve been unlucky and caught a strain that isn’t covered by the jab.
As it takes 10-14 days to fully protect you, it’s also possible that you’ve ended up catching the virus before your body has had chance to produce the antibodies needed to fight the flu. Unfortunately, this is just a case of bad timing and rotten luck. However, it’s likely that even in this case, your symptoms will be milder than if you hadn’t been vaccinated.
Whilst the flu jab might cause some side effects, it’s a complete myth that it can give you the flu.
If you do experience the flu even after having the 2019 flu jab, there are still medications that can help to ease your symptoms, for example, Tamiflu.
Tamiflu is an antiviral medicine that can help to treat influenza virus if it’s started within 48 hours of onset. It can help to relieve symptoms of the flu as well as helping you to recover sooner. Tamiflu can also be used to prevent the flu when there’s been an outbreak, but shouldn’t substitute a flu jab unless otherwise advised by your GP.
Flu jab side effects
Most people find that they have no symptoms after a flu jab, but some find that they do experience some side effects, the most common of which being injection site reaction.
It’s normal to feel sore, hard, or bruised around the area that you were injected. It shouldn’t last any longer than a couple of days, and can be treated with paracetamol or ibuprofen if the reaction bothers you. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re allergic to the jab, but it can be uncomfortable for some people.
Others might feel generally unwell, or have mild symptoms of a cold such as a stuffy or runny nose, sore throat, and cough. The good news is that these should subside within a couple of days and can also be treated at home. It’s important to know that these symptoms don’t mean that you’re becoming ill or that you’ve got the flu. However, if your symptoms persist for longer than two days and you don’t find relief from paracetamol or ibuprofen, you can ask a doctor or pharmacist for advice, or call 111 if you have a chronic condition and suspect that it could be flu. You may be prescribed antivirals such as Tamiflu to help with your symptoms.
But I'm scared of needles!
Even those that are scared of needles should get vaccinated against flu strains. Whilst a fear of needles is common, there are things that you can do to combat the phobia in the best interests of your health. All surgeries and pharmacies will allow you to bring a chaperone if you'd like one. If you have a fear of needles, it might be a good idea to bring a trusted friend or family member with you to distract you from the injection. However, most people don't feel the needle at all.
In addition to bringing someone with you, you can also request or even buy Emla cream - a medicine that contains a topical anaesthetic and is used to numb certain areas before injections or procedures. Emla cream might help to take away some of the anxiety that can accompany a fear of needles by making sure that you don't feel a thing.
Flu jab – recap
In summary, the 2019/2020 flu jab is essential if you’re wanting to avoid getting struck down by flu this season. Even if you had the vaccine last year, you’ll still need it again to protect you from the viruses this season.
Having the flu jab can prevent you and others from becoming ill, and can reduce your symptoms even if you’ve already caught the virus before the vaccine has protected you.
More and more people each year are receiving the vaccine, either on the NHS or privately, and it’s the safest and most effective way of preventing flu.
Flu symptoms are much worse than a common cold, and can have a lasting effect, so if you want to avoid the illness this year, you’re best getting it sooner rather than later.