It’s that time of year again: days are getting shorter, temperatures are dropping and advertisements for the flu shot are starting to appear everywhere. So, what exactly does a flu shot cover, who should get one and are there any risks involved in getting vaccinated against the flu? Let’s take a closer look at what getting a flu shot entails.
What is the flu shot?
The ‘flu shot’ is the term given to the influenza vaccine, which is a vaccine aimed to prevent infection from the various strains of influenza virus.
Influenza is a serious illness. A study done by the University of Otago in 2017 and published in the Journal of Infection estimated that the flu kills around 500 people each year in New Zealand.
Depending on your general health and immunity, if you do catch the flu, you may experience anything from just a mild sore throat and fever to severe pneumonia. Certain individuals, such as people over the age of 65 and people with chronic illnesses, are at higher risk of developing a severe case of the flu.
The flu vaccine is quite different from many other vaccines because it is modified annually according to the dominant flu strains for the season. It’s also ‘updated’ each year to take into account new mutations in the virus. That’s why it’s necessary to get a flu vaccine every year. Depending on the type of flu vaccine, it may cover 3 or 4 different strains of influenza.
The flu vaccine works by triggering your body to create antibodies to the dominant strains of flu virus so that when you are exposed to the flu, your body is primed to fight the virus. Getting the flu shot may not protect you 100% from catching the flu, but it will certainly ensure that you get it less severely than you would otherwise have.
As a bonus, if enough people get the flu vaccine, community transmission of the virus is decreased, meaning fewer people all around getting sick!
When to get the flu shot
The best time to get the flu vaccine is before the start of winter (usually around April), which allows your body time to respond to the vaccine. It usually takes about two weeks for your body to build antibodies in response to the flu shot.
Even if you’ve waited, though, there is still a benefit to getting a flu shot all the way through winter, so don’t think that you’ve missed the boat if you haven’t got your vaccine by July. It’s still worth getting the flu jab, even if it’s just for the tail end of winter, especially if you’re at high risk.
Who should get the vaccine?
In an ideal world, everyone should get the vaccine (except those with known contraindications such as a history of allergy to the vaccine, a history of Guillain-Barre after vaccination, those people on certain chemotherapy drugs and if you are very unwell). There are some people who are at higher risk of serious illness if they do get flu, and these people should make it a priority to get the vaccine:
- People over the age of 65
- People under the age of 65 but who have chronic medical illnesses such as emphysema, heart problems, asthma, chronic liver disease or diabetes
- Pregnant women (at any stage of pregnancy)
- Children under 4 years of age who are at increased risk of respiratory illness
Vaccines for high-risk individuals are generally free; however, you are still able to pay for a vaccine privately if you do not fall into the high risk category. If you weigh the risks and downtime associated with getting a bad bout of flu, it’s well worth ensuring you get vaccinated.
Remember that you can still get the vaccine if you’re planning to have the COVID vaccine. The COVID vaccine won’t cover the flu, and there is no contraindication to getting vaccinated against both the influenza virus and coronavirus. The flu vaccine needs to be given either two weeks before your first COVID-19 vaccination or two weeks after your second COVID-19 vaccination.
What to expect when you get the flu vaccine
Getting the flu vaccine is really no big deal. It is administered by a doctor or nurse and only takes a couple of minutes. Usually you will get the vaccine in your upper arm, and there may be a little mild tingling pain at the vaccine site for a few hours after getting the vaccine.
Does the vaccine have any side effects?
As with any medication, there are possible side effects from the flu shot. Most of these are mild and will disappear after a short time.
These are the most common side effects and what you can do to manage them:
Side effect - How long after? - What to do
Pain at the injection site - Occurs within minutes to hours after the vaccination; resolves after a day or two. - Place a cold compress or ice pack on the injection site. Do not irritate the injection site. Contact your GP if the area becomes very red or if pain does not resolve.
Mild fever and body aches - Usually occurs 1-2 days after getting the vaccine. Should have resolved by day 4-5 after being vaccinated. - Take it easy and make sure that you keep cool, keep hydrated and rest if necessary. Try not to take any paracetamol or anti-inflammatories if possible.
Headache, fatigue, muscle aches, decreased appetite - Usually occurs 1-2 days after getting the vaccine and should resolve within 4-5 days. - Take it easy, rest as necessary and drink lots of fluids. Try not to take paracetamol or anti-inflammatories if possible. Contact your GP if symptoms do not resolve.
Allergic reactions such as itchy rash, swelling of your lips and face, hives or difficulty breathing. This is very RARE with the flu vaccine - Usually occurs within a couple of hours of receiving the vaccine, although may occur up to a few days afterwards. - Contact your GP immediately or go to your nearest emergency department.
Remember that side effects to the vaccine are rare and most people do not experience anything beyond a transient discomfort.
How to get your vaccine
Booking to get your flu shot with us is as simple as giving us a call at 04 920 8850.
Choose to take control of your health this winter, and make sure that you don’t end up in bed (or worse) for days on end.