Influenza (flu) prevention
This winter it's more important than ever for older people to help protect themselves against the flu.
While we're still learning about coronavirus, we know a lot about the flu and can help to protect people against it.
If you're 65 and over, getting your free flu vaccination is a very important way to help protect your health this winter.
Read our information on what to do if you're feeling unwell, simple steps to take to protect yourself and others, and the latest information from the Government.
What is the flu?
The flu is an illness that affects the respiratory system. It's caused by the influenza virus and is very contagious.
It's in season from October through to March. Even if the weather's mild, you can still catch it.
What are the symptoms of the flu?
Symptoms of the flu can include:
- a fever
- a dry cough
- sore throat
- muscle aches
- feeling sick and being sick
- feeling very tired.
How can I treat the flu?
As the flu is a virus, antibiotics won’t relieve flu symptoms or help your recovery.
To help you get better you should drink plenty of water, rest as much as possible and try to keep warm. Taking ibuprofen and paracetamol can help ease some of the symptoms.
How can I stop myself catching the flu?
Influenza is a very infectious virus. To reduce the risk of spreading it make sure you wash your hands often, use tissues whenever you cough, or sneeze and bin used tissues as quickly as possible.
There is a vaccine available for those who are at a higher risk of the flu.
Even if it's a mild winter, flu is in season, so it's important to have an annual free flu jab if you're eligible. This helps protect you and any person you care for.
Who can get a free flu jab?
From 1 December everyone aged 50 and over is eligible to get a free flu vaccine. This includes people who will be 50 by 31 March 2021.
You can get a free flu jab from your GP or pharmacist if:
- you're aged 65 and over
- you live in residential care or another long-stay care facility
- you provide care for an older or disabled person
- you live in the same household as someone who is on the Shielded Patient List or is immunocompromised
- you have certain health conditions. A full list of can be found on the NHS website.
- you're gnant
- Children aged two to eleven
- People aged 50-64 may become eligible later in the Autumn. Check on the NHS Flu page to find out when this comes into effect.
If you're a frontline worker in the NHS, the NHS will pay for your vaccination.
If you work in social care your employer should organise and pay for your vaccine. If your employer does not offer the vaccine and you work for either a registered residential care or nursing home, a registered home care organisation or a hospice, you may be able to have a free vaccine at your GP or pharmacist.
You should be able to get a free flu jab from your GP or pharmacist if you provide health or social care through Direct Payments (personal budgets) or Personal Health Budgets (such as Personal Assistants) or both.
Speak to your GP or pharmacist if you think you could be eligible.
When should I have the flu jab?
Most surgeries and pharmacists start to offer the jab in late September or early October.
It takes up to 14 days for the vaccine to take effect, so it's better to have it as early as possible.
However, the flu season lasts until the end of March, so it's well worth protecting yourself up until then.
Where can I get my flu jab?
You can have your flu jab at your GP surgery or a local pharmacy offering the service. Where you go is your decision.
We’ve answered some more frequently asked questions
I had a seasonal flu jab last year. Do I need one this year?
Flu is a highly infectious disease caused by viruses that are always changing.
You need a flu jab every year because a new vaccine is produced to target those viruses most likely to be in circulation during the coming winter.
Is it safe to visit my GP for a flu jab?
Lots of us are understandably a bit concerned about the risk of coronavirus, especially in places like GP surgeries and pharmacies.
However, GP surgeries are taking precautions to protect their staff and patients. If you're worried, have a chat with the doctor or pharmacists about what they’re doing to keep everyone safe.
If you have an existing medical conditions we have information on what to expect when Accessing Health services.
Do I need the pneumo jab?
The ‘pneumo’ (or pneumococcal) jab is a one-off jab that helps protect you against pneumonia, meningitis and septicaemia (a type of blood poisoning).
Ask your GP about it if you’re aged 65 and over and haven’t had one.
Similarly, the shingles jab is a one-off jab that helps reduce your risk of getting shingles or mean you get milder symptoms if you do get it. Shingles can be very painful, even fatal.
You may be eligible for your shingles vaccine from the age of 70. You should talk to your GP for more information.
How can I reduce my risk of catching the flu?
If you have had the flu jab, you can still catch flu, but if you do catch it, you'll probably have milder symptoms than if you haven’t been vaccinated.
You can take these precautions to reduce your risk of catching flu:
- Have the flu vaccination.
- Eat well, stay active and drink plenty of warm drinks in the winter months.
- Wash your hands regularly with soap and warm water, particularly after using the toilet, before and after leaving the house, doing the gardening, petting animals and before eating.
How will my body react to the flu jab?
After the flu jab some people may experience a mild fever, muscle ache and sore arm. These side effects are generally nothing to worry about and will go away after a few days.
For a vast majority of people, the flu vaccine is safe and is the most effective way to protect yourself against the flu. If you are in any doubt, discuss your concerns with your doctor to help you reach an informed decision.
Serious reactions to the jab are very rare and usually so immediate, that, in the event of an allergic reaction, your doctor or pharmacist is likely to be on hand to help you.
If you are still worried you can have a look at NHS advice on symptoms and side effects, and read about when it might be a good idea to speak to your doctor before getting the jab.
Can the flu jab make me ill?
The flu vaccine can take up to two weeks to become fully effective, so during this period it is still possible to catch the flu.
It is also possible to catch the flu before you get the jab, but not be aware of it. It can make you think that the flu jab has given you the flu, when in fact you may have already been carrying the virus. The injected flu vaccine given to older adults cannot give you flu as it does not contain live viruses.
The flu vaccine only protects against flu, not colds and other illnesses which may have similar symptoms. Over the last few months, we have all become aware of the importance of taking precautions such as washing our hands regularly, to keep ourselves safe and well, and that is really important during the winter.
Can I have the flu jab while I'm taking antibiotics?
As long as you’re feeling well and don’t have a high temperature you can have the flu vaccine while you’re taking antibiotics.
How do vaccines work?
When a virus or bacteria, such as the flu, enters our body, our immune system detects it, fights it, and produces antibodies that recognise it and remember it.
The antibodies we produce are specific to each new virus or bacteria.
The flu vaccine helps our immune system to respond to a strain of flu as if it remembers it. In this way, the virus is killed before the infection gets a chance to take hold, and before we start to feel unwell. This is because the vaccination stimulates the natural immunity, we can get from having had a disease. We are then immune to that flu strain.
Our resident epidemiological expert Dr Elizabeth Webb explains how vaccines work and how they were developed in the hunt for the coronavirus vaccine.
There is more information on how the flu vaccine works on the NHS website.
Does the flu jab contain pork or egg?
There are different flu vaccines for different groups of people
The nasal vaccine for children does contain porcine gelatine but if you do not eat pork there may be other options available. Speak to your GP and see the NHS website for more information on this.
Flu vaccines that are injected do not usually contain pork.
Flu vaccines are made by growing the flu virus in egg or mammalian cells, so talk to your GP if you have an egg allergy.
If you are concerned about the ingredients of the flu vaccine or how it is made, speak to your GP or pharmacist and they can advise.
How to stay healthy this winter
It can be harder to keep well in the winter months as we age. We've got lots of ideas to help you feel your best, whatever the weather.
- Tips and advice on preparing for winter
- If you've recently lost weight without intending to or have a smaller appetite than usual, find out why this might be and what can be done to help.
- Read our healthy eating guide
- For NHS information on flu and the flu vaccine
- Download the NHS information leaflet for patients with a learning disability (PDF, 1 MB)
- Download your guide to having your flu jab during the coronavirus pandemic (PDF, 382 KB)