Flu vaccination – the real facts

Flu season is here again – and with it come invitations to large swathes of the population to get themselves protected. So let’s start by getting a few myths out of the way. Never a week goes by in my surgery during flu season without at least one patient bringing up all of them!

  • There's no such thing as 'a touch of flu'! Many of my colleagues ask their patients to tell them if they would have the energy to pick up a £50 they saw on the ground. If the answer is yes, they have a cold. If the answer is no, they have flu. You really do feel that ill!
  • The flu vaccine doesn’t contain any live virus. Since the virus has to multiply inside you to give you influenza, it is physically impossible to catch flu from the vaccine, no matter what your friends tell you!
  • Having the flu vaccine doesn’t protect you against any other viral infections. So if you still get coughs and colds after you’ve had the vaccine, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t worked.
  • Having had a flu vaccine in the past doesn’t mean you’re protected this year. Neither does a past dose of flu. The influenza virus is very sneaky and evolves year-on-year. That means your body may not recognise the virus even if you’ve had a past infection and can’t fight it off effectively.
  • Having the flu vaccine doesn’t guarantee you won’t get flu. However, it does reduce your risk of catching the infection for seven or eight people out of every 10 who have it. It also reduces the chance of you getting serious, potentially life-threatening complications from it.

Although the groups offered flu immunisation aren’t necessarily more likely to get flu than anyone else, they are more likely to get serious complications. Every year, the Department of Health asks GPs to invite everyone in high-risk groups to get protected with the flu immunisation. This year, those groups include:

  • Anyone over 65
  • Pregnant women (in any stage of pregnancy).
  • Anyone over 6 months old with a long-term condition such as diabetes, liver disease, kidney disease or heart or chest problems.
  • Anyone over 6 months old with asthma who has needed treatment with steroid inhalers or tablets, or who has had a flare-up needing hospital admission in the past.
  • Anyone who has had a stroke or a TIA (sometimes called a ‘mini stroke’)
  • People undergoing medical treatment which may affect their immune system, or who have a medical condition which could affect their immune system, like HIV
  • People with a condition of the nervous system such as multiple sclerosis (MS) or cerebral palsy
  • All people living in a residential or nursing home
  • Frontline health or social care workers
  • Anyone who gets a carer’s allowance, or who is a main carer for an elderly or disabled person

GPs have been asked to work specially hard to encourage pregnant women to get vaccinated. It’s inevitable that if you’re pregnant, you’re extra keen to avoid anything that might harm your baby. But a new study offers very reassuring evidence that pregnant women who are immunised against flu reduce their risk of losing their babies.

There have also been lots of headlines about all children being offered flu immunisation using a new nasal spray. However, that’s not likely to happen for a couple of years. In the meantime, if you do have a child in an 'at-risk' category, do make sure you take up the offer of immunisation, which you should get from your GP in the next week or two.

So if you get that letter through the door inviting you, don’t ignore it. If you do, you might find out the hard way that the last myth – ‘side-effects of the vaccine are worse than getting flu' – is a lot of nonsense too.


BMJ 2012;344:e3091 (Published 2 May 2012)

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.