Flu is a highly infectious illness that spreads rapidly through the coughs and sneezes of people who are carrying the virus.
For most people, flu is an unpleasant illness, but it's not serious. If you are otherwise healthy, you will usually recover from flu within a week.
However, certain people are more likely to develop potentially serious complications of flu, such as bronchitis and pneumonia. These people should have a flu jab each year.
If you're at risk of complications from flu, make sure you have your annual flu jab available from September onwards.
The injected flu vaccine is offered free of charge on the NHS to people who are at risk to ensure that they are protected against catching flu and developing serious complications.
You are eligible to receive a free flu jab if you:
- are 65 years of age or over (before 31st April 2014)
- are pregnant
- have certain medical conditions (see below)
- are living in a long-stay residential care home or other long-stay care facility
- receive a carer's allowance, or you are the main carer for an elderly or disabled person whose welfare may be at risk if you fall ill
- are a healthcare worker with direct patient contact or a social care worker (see below)
Speak to your GP about whether you should have 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
Pregnant women and the flu jab
If you're pregnant, you will benefit from the flu vaccine because it:
- reduces your chance of getting serious complications of flu, such as pneumonia, particularly in the later stages of pregnancy
- reduces your risk of having a miscarriage or your baby being born prematurely or with a low birthweight, due to flu
- will help protect your baby because they will continue to have some immunity to flu for the first few months of their life
It's safe to have the flu vaccine at any stage of pregnancy, from conception onwards. The vaccine doesn't carry any risks for you or your baby. Talk to your GP or midwife if you are unsure about the vaccination.
Flu vaccine for people with medical conditions
The injected flu vaccine is offered free of charge on the NHS to anyone with a serious long term health condition. That includes these types of illnesses:
- chronic (long-term) respiratory disease, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or bronchitis
- chronic heart disease, such as heart failure
- chronic kidney disease
- chronic liver disease, such as hepatitis
- chronic neurological conditions, such as Parkinson's disease or motor neurone disease
- problems with your spleen – for example, sickle cell disease, or if you have had your spleen removed
- a weakened immune system due to conditions such as HIV and AIDS, or as a result of medication such as steroid tablets or chemotherapy
If you live with someone who has a weakened immune system, you may also be advised to have a flu vaccine. Speak to your GP about this.
Flu vaccine for health and social care workers
Outbreaks of flu can occur in health and social care settings, and, because flu is so contagious, staff, patients and residents are all at risk of infection.
If you're a frontline health and social care worker, you can protect yourself, your colleagues and other members of the community, by having the flu vaccine.
If you care for someone who is elderly or disabled, speak to your GP about having a flu jab along with the person you care for has the flu jab.
Children and the flu vaccine
The flu vaccine is available for some children, but as a nasal spray instead of an injection. From September 2013, the nasal spray flu vaccine will be offered each year to all two and three-year-olds.
It will also be offered to all children between the ages of two and 16 who have a long term health condition that puts them at extra risk from flu, or have previously been admitted to hospital with a chest infection. The flu vaccine will be offered to children with a long term health condition aged between six months and two years of age.
How to get the flu jab
If you think you need a flu vaccination, check with your GP or practice nurse.
The best time of the year to have a flu vaccination is in the autumn from September to early November.
Even if you've already had a flu jab in previous years, you need another one each year. The flu jab may only protect you for a year. This is because the viruses that cause flu are always changing.
How effective is the flu jab?
No vaccine is 100% effective, however, people who have had the flu jab are less likely to get flu. If you do get flu despite having the jab, it will probably be milder than if you haven’t been vaccinated.
The adult flu injection doesn’t cause flu as it doesn’t contain live viruses. However, you may experience side effects after having the jab, such as a temperature and aching muscles for a couple of days afterwards. Your arm may feel sore at the site where you were injected. More severe reactions are rare.
The flu vaccine only protects against flu, but not other illnesses caused by other viruses, such as the common cold.
More information can be found at Patient.co.uk
Information from the NHS Choices website