Flu Jabs – the lowdown

Flu is a very common complaint, but there’s a lot of confusion when it comes to the flu jab. Let’s find out a bit more about the vaccine to this common but surprisingly troublesome illness.

A lot of people say they have flu, when in many cases it is in fact just a severe cold. When it is real however, flu is very unpleasant and can be debilitating for a few days. Flu is highly infectious and spreads rapidly through small droplets coughed or sneezed into the air by an infected person. However if you are otherwise healthy it will usually clear up on its own within a week. Personal hand hygiene is particularly important to try to prevent catching it. Most adults can have the injected flu vaccine, but this should be avoided if you have had a serious allergic reaction to a flu jab in the past, or if you are allergic to egg.

There has been some debate this season as to whether the need for a flu vaccine is hype from the pharmaceutical industry making big bucks or whether it is from medical need. I will leave that one to you! There is research which makes interesting arguments for both sides of the argument. A common myth is that the flu jab causes people to get flu but there are no active viruses in the vaccine, so this is not the case. The nasal spray flu vaccine does contain the live virus, though the viruses are weakened and cannot therefore cause flu illness.

Protecting yourself from flu also protects the people around you who are more vulnerable to serious flu illness. This is worth bearing in mind as a care worker even if you do not want the vaccine for your own protection. This said no employer can force you to have the vaccine.

Flu can be serious for people in certain groups.

  • Anyone over the age of 65
  • Pregnant women
  • Children and adults with an underlying health condition (particularly long-term heart or respiratory disease)
  • Children and adults with weakened immune systems

It is recommended that anybody in these categories have a flu vaccine every year to protect them.

The flu vaccine is given free on the NHS as an annual injection to:

  • Adults over the age of 18 at risk of flu (including everyone over 65)
  • Children aged six months to two years at risk of flu.

The flu vaccine is given as an annual nasal spray to:

  • Children aged two to 17 years at a particular risk of flu
  • Healthy children aged two, three and four years old

It’s worth noting that research has indicated the nasal spray should not be given to children with epilepsy


When to have a flu jab

The best time to have a flu vaccine is from the beginning of October to early November, but the vaccine can be given later in winter if there are stocks left. Vaccination should be offered throughout the flu season, even in January or later. While seasonal influenza outbreaks can happen as early as October, during most seasons influenza activity peaks in January or later.


The flu jab for 2014/15

Each year, the viruses that are most likely to cause flu are identified in advance, and vaccines are made to match them. The vaccines are recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). The 2014/15 vaccine protects against three types of flu virus.

  • 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
  • B/Massachusetts/2 – a strain of flu that was active in 2012

The nasal spray flu vaccine offers protection against four strains of virus, as it includes a virus strain that was active in 2008.


Flu jab side effects

The vaccine should not be given to people with an allergy to egg. Serious side effects of the injected flu vaccine are very rare. You can get a slight temperature and aching muscles for a couple of days afterwards and your arm may be a bit sore where you were injected. If you have a sore arm after the vaccination, these tips may help to ease the pain:

  • Continue to move the arm regularly. Don’t let it get stiff and sore.
  • Use a heat pack or warm compress on the area.
  • Use an ice pack on the area if it becomes hot and sore. Do not apply ice directly to the skin – wrap it in a towel first!
  • Painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen will ease the discomfort, though aspirin shouldn’t be given to children under 16.

The nasal spray: The viruses in the nasal spray vaccine are weakened and do not cause severe symptoms often associated with influenza illness.

In children, side effects from the nasal spray may include:

  • Runny nose
  • Wheezing
  • Headache
  • Vomiting
  • Muscle aches
  • Fever

In adults, side effects from the nasal spray vaccine may include:

  • Runny nose
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Cough

Serious allergic reactions to flu vaccines are very rare. Staff giving vaccinations trained to deal with anaphylaxis, a quick and complete recovery can be expected with prompt treatment. This is why I would advise people get their vaccine in a health setting rather than a supermarket.

Contact a pharmacist or your GP if you experience side effects that are not improving over time.