Whilst flu is unpleasant for everyone, usually taking around a week to clear up in otherwise healthy people, for those in certain risk groups it can be life-threatening, causing complications such as bronchitis and pneumonia, which is why the flu jab is offered. But while the vaccination is available for adults and children every year on the NHS, it's important to note that having the vaccine doesn't 100% guarantee you'll be flu-free.
The World Health Organisation decides which flu strains are most likely to circulate 12 months in advance, with different vaccines recommended for the Northern and Southern hemispheres. The annual jab only vaccinates against the three or four most common types, meaning it won't stop all flu viruses and the level of protection may vary. Which is why last year, when the main strain of flu mutated unexpectedly, the vaccine was rendered largely ineffective, only working for a third of adults and leading to 28,000 more people dying as a result of the illness in 2017.
As for whether it's worth getting this year, experts say it definitely is. Not only is it vital to protect yourself if you're in a high-risk group, if you end up still getting the flu after being vaccinated the illness is likely to be milder and shorter-lived than it would otherwise have been. “Some years the vaccine is less effective than others, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still hugely valuable," explains Dr Christopher Chiu, spokesperson for the British Society for Immunology. “It is crucial that we remember that vaccination remains the best protection we have against the unpredictable flu virus."
He explains that hundreds of virologists around the world are constantly working to make vaccines safer, more reliable and more effective, and that "just because the process isn’t perfect", it doesn't mean it’s not saving hundreds of thousands of lives a year. “I would urge anyone in the at-risk categories to get their free jab before this winter," he concluded.
Public Health England has also revealed this year's vaccination has been "enhanced", containing extra ingredients designed to help people's immune systems develop a stronger defence against flu. "This looks like it's going to be a significant improvement and quite a step in our battle against flu each winter," a spokesperson for the organisation told the BBC.
The NHS says most adults can have the injected flu vaccine, unless they've had a serious allergic reaction to one in the past, and stresses that it's important to have the jab each year. "Over time, protection from the injected flu vaccine gradually decreases and flu strains often change," they state. "So new flu vaccines are produced each year, which is why people advised to have the flu vaccine need it every year too." They also state that the best time to get the vaccine is as soon as your GP gets supplies, which is usually between now and early November.
So should you get it? Holland & Barrett have a handy quiz – simply answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to each question to discover whether you need the flu jab this winter...
1. Those in ‘high-risk’ groups will be offered the flu jab by their GP. Are you:
– Aged 65 or over
– Living in a residential or nursing home
– The main carer of an older or disabled person
Or do you have:
– A heart problem
– Chest complaints or breathing difficulties
– Kidney disease
– Lowered immunity due to disease or treatment
– Liver disease or diabetes
– A neurological condition such as multiple sclerosis
– A problem with, or removal of, your spleen e.g. sickle cell disease
2. Are you a healthcare worker, have young children, or work with children?
Health and social care workers can get the flu jab to help protect them, their patients, colleagues and families. Anyone working with, or who has young children is also advised to have the jab, as young children typically get between seven and 10 colds a year; women tend to suffer more than men due to their greater exposure to children. Healthy children aged two, three and four years old will automatically be offered the flu vaccine as a nasal spray as part of the childhood vaccination programme.
3. Do you meet a lot of different people every day; do you work as a shop assistant or bartender, for example?
These people have a lot of exposure to the general public, so their risk of picking up a flu virus also increases. At this time of year – as shops and pubs start getting busy in the run-up to Christmas – you’re also more likely to come into contact with more people than normal.
4. Would you be comfortable taking time off work?
If you’re self-employed, or the head of a company, your business could suffer if you’re laid low with flu. Those worried about losing their jobs may also want to take out ‘insurance’ against getting flu and having to take time off. The flu jab can help protect your economic health too!
5. Are you a student, or studying for exams?
Students are much more likely to come into contact with others in crowded areas, upping their chances of catching flu. And if you’re studying for exams, you don’t want to fall ill during exam season and miss them.
6. Are you trying to get pregnant?
All pregnant women should have the flu jab to protect themselves and their babies. But what if you’re planning to get pregnant over winter? Talk to your GP about having the jab – if you do become pregnant and then get flu you may need urgent medicine if you’re not vaccinated.
7. Are you stressed at the moment?
If you’re under a lot of stress, you may not be eating or sleeping properly – both key to a healthy immune system. Stress also triggers the release of steroids, which stops the body from producing white blood cells that fight viruses.
8. Do you seem to catch every bug going?
If you’re the sort of person who always goes down with a cold, experts say it may be worth having the jab. Make sure you’re following our easy cold-prevention rules too.
We’re surprised you’re still here – you should be at the GP getting the flu jab! The best time to be vaccinated is in the autumn, from October to early November, but you can still have the jab later on. You shouldn’t have it if you’ve had a previous reaction, if you’re allergic to hen’s eggs, or you have a weakened immune system.
Lucky you – flu is something that happens to other people. Although you may not need the flu jab, keep your immune system strong to ward off other cold-weather conditions like coughs, colds or the winter vomiting bug.
Mixture Of ‘Yes’ & ‘No’
Still unsure if you need the jab? Make an appointment with your GP to discuss it. You can pay to have it at a pharmacy if you’re not eligible on the NHS, or your company may offer it to protect employees over winter. Maintaining your immune system is another essential weapon in your cold-weather arsenal.
For more information about the flu jab, visit NHS.UK