6 common questions about the flu vaccine, answered by an expert

At-risk groups can get the vaccine free of charge.

AS WE CONTINUE to tackle Covid-19 across the country, it’s important to remember that there’s another virus we can help to protect ourselves from: flu virus. 

Flu vaccine season has arrived and autumn is the time for at-risk groups to get their free vaccination from their GP or pharmacist, says specialist in public health medicine Dr Chantal Migone. 

“The time to get the flu vaccine is in autumn, from October through the autumn months,” says Dr Migone. “The circulation of flu is really at the end of the year in December and in January, so you want to get the flu vaccine before then.”

Wondering if you should get the flu vaccine this year? Below, Dr Migone answers six common questions about the flu vaccine, who should get it and why it’s important.

1. What is meant by an ‘at-risk’ group? 

“When we talk about at-risk groups, we mean people who are at-risk of the serious complications of influenza,” says Dr Migone. “Some people are at higher risk of complications from flu like pneumonia and bronchitis. These complications can mean somebody needs to be treated in hospital, or even in intensive care.”

So, who falls under the at-risk category? “People who are at higher risk of the complications of the flu are those who have an underlying medical condition, like heart disease, diabetes or cancer, people who are aged 65 or older, or are pregnant.”

“Health care workers and people who care for people who are medically at risk of severe flu disease are a really important group for our flu vaccine as well, because they are more likely to get the flu themselves, but also that means they could spread the flu to the vulnerable patients that they’re looking after.” 

shutterstock_598513733 Shutterstock / Africa Studio Shutterstock / Africa Studio / Africa Studio

2. Is it more important for the public to get the flu vaccine this year because of Covid-19?

Yes – it’s even more important for at-risk groups to get the flu vaccine this year, says Dr Migone. “Many of those at-risk groups are also at risk of coronavirus. It’s always important that they get the flu vaccine each year, but this year it’s especially important for those who are at risk to get it because if you were to get flu and Covid-19 together, it’s very likely that your outcome would be worse.” 

We want you to stay well over the winter, and also we don’t want you to be sick with flu because that could mean admission to hospital. For our health service, it’s also really important that lots of people aren’t very sick with flu and needing treatment in hospital. 

3. Can pregnant women get the flu vaccine?

Pregnant women are strongly recommended to get the flu vaccine, says Dr Migone. “The flu vaccine has been given to pregnant women for more than 50 years. It’s very safe at any stage of pregnancy.”

“The reason we want to vaccinate pregnant women against flu is because they themselves are at risk of the complications of the flu, but also flu in pregnancy can cause complications with pregnancy,” she explains. “It can cause, for example, preterm birth or even stillbirth.” Find out more about the flu vaccine and pregnancy here.

shutterstock_190732964 Shutterstock / G-Stock Studio Shutterstock / G-Stock Studio / G-Stock Studio

4. Is the flu vaccine suitable for children?

“This year we have a new and very important development in our flu vaccination programme in that children who are aged between two and 12 years are able to get the flu vaccine free of charge,” says Dr Migone. “It’s a different vaccine to what adults get – it’s a nasal flu vaccine, so it’s given as a nasal spray, meaning there’s no need for needles. And it’s available free of charge from GPs and pharmacists.”

The flu vaccine is recommended for children because they also, especially younger children, are at increased risk of some of those complications of flu, so it’s to protect them as well. 

shutterstock_1504547801 Shutterstock / fizkes Shutterstock / fizkes / fizkes

5. I got the flu vaccine last year, do I need to get it again?

You might think you don’t need to get the flu vaccine again if you got it last year, but that’s not the case. “If you’re one of the people for whom the flu vaccine is recommended, you need to get the flu vaccine every year because the strains of flu that circulate in the community change,” explains Dr Migone. “There are different strains circulating each flu season, so that’s why you need a different flu vaccine each year.” 

6. Does the flu vaccine give you the flu? 

“The flu vaccine cannot give you the flu. It does the opposite – it protects you against the flu. Many people who get the flu vaccine have no side effects at all. The more common side effects are a sore arm, where you got the injection, or sometimes people can get some muscle ache, but those side effects are usually mild and they go away themselves in a day or two.”

Are you pregnant, over 65 or in another at-risk group? Make an appointment with your GP or pharmacist for the free flu vaccine. Children aged two to 12 are also eligible to get the vaccine free of charge. Find out more about the flu vaccine here.

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