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Flu jab, seasonal

Introduction

Influenza, more commonly known as flu, is a highly infectious illness caused by the flu virus.

Flu outbreaks often occur during the winter each year, which is why the illness is sometimes referred to as seasonal flu.

The virus spreads rapidly through small, contaminated droplets that are coughed or sneezed into the air by an infected person.

Unlike a cold, the symptoms of flu come on very quickly and include a fever and aching joints and muscles.

Although flu can be unpleasant, if you are otherwise healthy, the illness will usually clear up on its own and you will recover within a week.

However, the effects of flu can be more severe in certain groups, such as older people, pregnant women and people with an underlying health condition (particularly chronic heart or respiratory disease), or those with weakened immune systems.

Therefore, to protect against the potentially harmful effects of flu, it is recommended that these at-risk groups are vaccinated each year with the flu vaccine.

The flu vaccine

Studies have shown that having the flu vaccine provides effective protection against the flu, although protection may not be complete and the level of protection may vary between people.

Protection from the vaccine gradually decreases and flu strains often change. As a result, new vaccines are made each year and people at risk of flu are encouraged to be vaccinated every year.

If you are at risk, it is very important that you have an annual flu vaccine to protect you against potential serious complications of the flu, such as pneumonia (a lung infection) if you were to catch the illness.

Serious side effects of the flu vaccine are very rare. You may have a slight temperature and aching muscles for a couple of days after having the flu jab, and your arm may be a bit sore where you were injected.

The best time to have a flu vaccine is in the autumn, from September to early November, before any flu outbreaks occur.

Do not wait until a flu outbreak occurs – contact your GP or practice nurse now to arrange your flu jab.

The flu jab for 2012/13

Each year, the viruses that are most likely to cause flu are identified in advance and vaccines are made to match them as closely as possible. The vaccines are recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The 2012/13 vaccine protects against three types of flu virus. This year’s flu jab protects against:

  • H1N1 – the strain of flu that caused the swine flu pandemic in 2009
  • H3N2 – a strain of flu that can infect birds and mammals and was active in 2011
  • a strain of flu that was active in 2010 known as B/Wisconsin/1

Read more about flu vaccines and how they are produced

Most people can have the flu vaccine, but you should not have it if you have had an allergic reaction to a flu vaccine in this past. However, this is very rare.

Read more about who shouldn't have the flu vaccine.

You can also find out more about the flu vaccine by reading our frequently asked questions page.

Children to be offered annual flu vaccine

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has recommended that all children from age 2 to 17 should have the annual influenza vaccination.

The vaccine may be given as a nasal spray rather than an injection.

Further reading: JCVI. Position statement on the annual influenza vaccination programme (PDF, 151K). Published online July 25 2012.

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About the vaccine

A new flu vaccine has to be produced each year. This is because the flu virus continually changes and different types of flu virus circulate each winter.

In February each year, the World Health Organization (WHO) makes an assessment of the strains of flu virus that are most likely to be circulating during the following winter in the northern hemisphere.

Based on this assessment, WHO recommends which three flu strains the vaccines should contain for the forthcoming winter. Vaccine manufacturers then produce flu vaccines based on the WHO recommendations. These flu jabs are used for the countries in the northern hemisphere, not just the UK.

Production of the vaccine starts in March each year after the WHO's announcement. The vaccine is usually available in the UK from September. 

How the vaccine is made

The flu vaccine contains three different types of flu virus (usually two A types and one B type). For most vaccines, the three strains of the viruses, are grown in hens' eggs. The viruses are then deactivated (killed) and purified before being made into the vaccine.

How it protects you

The vaccine causes your body’s immune system to make antibodies to the flu virus.

Antibodies are proteins that recognise and fight off germs that have invaded your blood, such as viruses. If you catch the flu virus later on, the immune system will recognise it and immediately produce the antibodies to fight it.

It may take 10–14 days for your immune system to respond fully after you have had the flu injection.

The antibodies that protect you from the flu will gradually decrease over time and the flu strains can change from year to year. Therefore, you need to have a flu jab every year to make sure that you have the best protection against the latest strain of the virus.  

Types of flu

There are three types of flu viruses.  They are:

  • Type A is usually the more serious type. The virus is most likely to mutate into a new version, which people are not resistant to. The H1N1 (swine flu) strain is a type A virus. Pandemics in the past were type A viruses. 
  • Type B generally causes a less severe illness and is responsible for smaller outbreaks. Type B mainly affects young children.
  • Type C usually causes a mild illness similar to the common cold.

Most years, one or two strains of type A flu circulate, as well as type B.

Are there any side effects?

The flu jab does not usually cause side effects. However, sometimes it can cause mild fever and slight muscle aches for a day or so.

The flu jab cannot cause flu because there are no active viruses in the vaccine. However, people sometimes catch other flu-like viruses, or very occasionally could catch flu before the vaccine takes effect.

Allergic reactions to the vaccine are rare.

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Who should have it?

For most people, flu is unpleasant but not serious. You will usually recover within a week.

However, certain people are at greater risk of developing serious complications of flu, such as bronchitis and pneumonia. These conditions may require hospital treatment. 

The flu vaccine is offered free of charge to people who are at risk, to protect them from catching flu and developing serious complications.

At-risk groups

It is recommended you have a flu jab if you:

  • are 65 years old or over
  • are pregnant (see below)
  • have a serious medical condition (see below)
  • are living in a long-stay residential care home or other long-stay care facility (not including prisons, young offender institutions or university halls of residence)  
  • those in receipt of a carer's allowance, or those who are the main carer for an elderly or disabled person whose welfare may be at risk if you fall ill
  • health and social care staff directly involved in the care of their patients or clients (see below)

If you are the parent of a child who is over six months old and has a long-term condition on the list below, speak to your GP about the flu vaccine. Your child's condition may get worse if they catch flu.

Pregnant women

It is recommended that all pregnant women should have the flu vaccine, whatever stage of pregnancy they're in.

This is because there is good evidence that pregnant women have an increased risk of developing complications if they get flu, particularly from the H1N1 strain.

Studies have shown that the flu vaccine can be safely and effectively given during any trimester of pregnancy. The vaccine does not carry risks for either the mother or baby. In fact, studies have shown that mothers who have had the vaccine while pregnant pass some protection to their babies, which lasts for the first few months of their lives.

People with medical conditions

The flu vaccine is offered free of charge to anyone who is over the age of six months and has one of the following medical conditions:

If you live with someone who has a weakened immune system, you may also be able to have a flu vaccine. Speak to your GP about this.

Frontline health or social care workers

Employers are responsible for ensuring that arrangements are in place for frontline healthcare staff to have the flu vaccine.

Outbreaks of flu can occur in health and social care settings, and staff, patients and residents are at risk of infection.

Frontline health and social care staff should protect themselves by having the flu vaccine to prevent the spread of flu to colleagues and other members of the community.

If you care for someone who is elderly or disabled, speak to your GP about getting vaccinated against seasonal flu. You should also ensure that the person you care for has the flu jab.

Children

It has been recommeded that children from age 2 to 17 should also have the annual influenza vaccination. 

However, it is unlikely that the vaccine, which will be given as a nasal spray rather than an injection, will be offered before 2014.

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Who shouldn't have it

You should not have the seasonal flu vaccine if you have ever had an allergic reaction to a flu vaccine or one of its ingredients. This happens very rarely.

If you have had a confirmed very serious (anaphylactic) reaction to egg, have an egg allergy with uncontrolled asthma or another type of allergy to egg, your GP may decide that you should be vaccinated with an egg-free vaccine (if available).

If no egg-free vaccine is available, your GP will identify a suitable vaccine with a low egg (ovalbumin) content, the details of which will be in the Green Book - Immunisation against infectious disease - Influenza (PDF).

Depending on the severity of your egg allergy, your GP may decide to refer you to a specialist for vaccination in hospital.

If you are ill with a fever, do not have your flu jab until you have recovered.

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Frequently asked Questions

When am I most at risk from flu?

Can I go to work if I have been in contact with somebody who has recently been diagnosed with flu?

Does everyone need a flu jab?

Why are certain groups targeted for the flu jab?

Can a GP vaccinate anyone else?

Is my child entitled to the flu vaccine?

How long will the flu jab protect me for?

How long does the seasonal flu vaccine take to become effective?

If I had the flu jab last year, do I need it again now?

Can the flu jab actually cause flu?

When is the best time to get my flu jab?

Is there anyone who cannot receive a flu jab?

Can people get the flu vaccine privately?

Why is it recommended that healthcare workers are vaccinated?

Can I get a flu jab if I'm breastfeeding?

Can you have the seasonal flu vaccine at any time during pregnancy?

How do I get the seasonal flu vaccine if my GP has run out?

Do I need Tamiflu and how do I get a prescription?

I have had flu symptoms for five days. Can I have visitors?

When am I most at risk from flu?

Flu circulates every winter, usually over a short period of a few weeks.  Therefore many people get ill around the same time. In a bad year, this can be an epidemic, but it is impossible to predict how much flu there will be in any year.

Can I go to work or school if I have been in contact with somebody who has recently been diagnosed with flu?

Yes. You should go about your everyday business, but stay at home if you develop flu-like symptoms.

Does everyone need a flu jab?

Ask your GP about having a flu vaccination if you:

  • are 65 or over
  • are pregnant
  • have a serious medical condition
  • live in a residential or nursing home
  • are the main carer for an elderly or disabled person whose welfare may be at risk if you fall ill
  • you or your child (over 6 months) is in a risk group

You should also be offered the flu vaccination if you are a healthcare or social care worker directly involved in patient care.

For more information, see Who should have it.

Why are certain groups targeted for the flu jab?

Complications such as bronchitis and pneumonia are more common in those with underlying diseases such as those mentioned above, especially if they are also elderly. Almost all of the deaths related to flu are in people in these groups.

In long-stay residential accommodation, influenza vaccination prevents the rapid spread of flu among residents.

Can a GP vaccinate anyone else?

The final decision as to who should be offered vaccination is a matter for the patient's GP, based on the individual's medical history.

Is my child entitled to the flu vaccine?

It has been recommended that children from the age of two to 17 should also have an annual flu vaccine.

Speak to your GP about the flu vaccine if you are the parent of a child who is over six months old and has a long-term condition. Your child's condition may get worse if they catch flu.

Find out more about who should have the seasonal flu vaccine.

How long will the jab protect me for?

The flu jab will provide protection for you for the upcoming flu season. 

How long does the seasonal flu vaccine take to become effective?

The vaccine causes your body’s immune system to make antibodies to the flu virus. 

Antibodies are proteins that recognise and fight off germs that have invaded your blood, such as viruses. If you catch the flu virus later on, the immune system will recognise it and immediately produce the antibodies to fight it.

It may take 10–14 days for your immune system to respond fully after you have had the flu injection.

If I had the flu jab last year, do I need it again now?

Yes. The viruses that cause flu change every year, which means the flu (and the vaccine) this winter may be different from last winter's.

Can the flu jab cause flu?

No. The vaccine does not contain any live viruses, so it cannot cause flu. Some people get a slight temperature and aching muscles for a couple of days afterwards and your arm may feel a bit sore where you were injected. Any other reactions are rare and flu jabs are very safe.

When is the best time to get my flu jab?

The best time is as soon as your GP gets supplies of the vaccine. This will be between late September and early November. Do not wait until winter, when the flu virus is circulating.

Is there anyone who cannot have a flu jab?

You should not have the seasonal flu vaccine if you have ever had an allergic reaction to a flu vaccine or one of its ingredients.  This happens very rarely.

If you have had a confirmed very serious (anaphylactic) reaction to egg, have an egg allergy with uncontrolled asthma or another type of allergy to egg, your GP may decide that you should be vaccinated with an egg-free vaccine. 

If no egg-free vaccine is available, your GP will identify a suitable vaccine with a low egg (ovalbumin) content, the details of which will be in the Green Book - Immunisation against infectious disease (PDF). 

Depending on the severity of your egg allergy, your GP may refer you to a specialist for vaccination in hospital.

If you are ill with a fever, do not have your flu jab until you have recovered.

Can people get the flu vaccine privately?

People who aren’t in the at-risk groups can pay for a flu vaccination privately. In Wales, the flu vaccination is available in a range of larger pharmacies and supermarkets for a fee.

Why is it recommended that healthcare workers are vaccinated?

It not only prevents healthcare workers passing on flu to their patients, but should also help the NHS maintain staffing levels during a flu epidemic, when both GPs and other health services are particularly busy.

Can I get a flu jab if I'm breastfeeding?

Yes, the vaccine poses no risk to a breastfeeding mother or her baby, or to pregnant women.

Can you have the seasonal flu vaccine at any time during pregnancy?

Yes. The seasonal flu vaccine is safe to have in any stage of pregnancy, including in the first trimester and up to the expected due date. It helps protect the mother and also protects the baby from catching flu.

How do I get the seasonal flu vaccine if my GP has run out?

GPs have already been asked to check their stocks. If they have run out, they have been advised to work with neighbouring practices or the Health Board to obtain further supplies. The vaccine manufacturers and suppliers still have stocks available for ordering.

Do I need Tamiflu and how do I get a prescription?

Your GP will decide if you need Tamiflu, and will prescribe it if necessary.

I have had flu symptoms for five days. Can I have visitors?

You are probably not infectious after five days and will be clear of flu by seven days.

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