This time every year, we have patients asking us if the flu shot is really worth having. We get it – sometimes the flu vaccine doesn’t appear to “do anything” – some people still get sick, some people never get sick so they don’t want to spend the money, and some are paranoid about vaccinations in general. That’s why we’re here to answer your most commonly asked questions around the flu.
What is the flu?
Influenza, or the flu, is a highly contagious virus that. Its NOT the same as a common cold. Yes, it happens every year and runs in Australia from June to September, peaking in August. This year is particularly a bad year, with confirmed cases tripling since the same time last year.
Flu or just a cold?
The tricky thing is that the symptoms are similar. However, flu symptoms are usually more serious and lasts longer.
Basically, it’s a whole lot meaner that a cold and most of us haven’t experienced this before. Most of us get a cold (or two) over the winter season, which is your normal blocked nose, runny nose, dry or chesty cough, maybe a rash, maybe a bit of a temperature, and feeling tired. A flu feels like a tonne of brick has just hit you. If you’ve got the below symptoms, you most likely have the flu:
- Nausea or actual vomiting
- Chest or abdomen pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Skin starting to turn blue – more prevalent in children.
Why should I get it the vaccine?
The vaccine protects people against the virus. The strains of the flu virus mutate and change every year, so this year’s vaccine is different from the last. Each year, Australia develops a new vaccine containing the three most common strains developed from the flu viruses experienced in the northern hemisphere winter that occurs earlier in the year. The vaccine provides immunity for three to four months, which is why we recommend you get a new one every year.
Can the vaccine cause the flu?
No – this is a common myth. Flu vaccines given with a needle are either created with “killed” (inactive) viruses or from a single gene virus (not the full virus) to product an immune response without an actual infection.
I already caught it early on – should I still get it?
Yes, absolutely. You can catch the flu more than once, especially if the strain of virus varies/mutates throughout the flu season.
Why should I get it if I have a great immune system?
We hear this all the time. If you have a great immune system and rarely ever get sick, it’s unlikely you’ll be bed ridden for weeks on end with the flu. However, you should still get vaccinated. By getting the shot, you’re helping stop the spread of the virus around the community, which may be more harmful to vulnerable people such as kids and the elderly. Plus, it’s never a bad idea for that extra protection and as we noted, the virus varies/mutates every year – you never know when it may hit you next.
Why do people still get sick after the flu vaccine?
There are several reasons:
- It may not be the flu – other respiratory viruses can have the same symptoms as the flu, so it may be a cold or another illness.
- It usually takes two weeks for the vaccine to be effective, so during that buffer time the body is still developing that immunity.
- The flu vaccine is a very different strain from the strain that the vaccine is designed to protect.
- Vaccines are not 100% bullet proof – it varies in effectiveness amongst people.
When should I get it?
Mid-April is the best month to get the flu shot, but anytime from then until late July is fine as the flu lingers around until September.
Do not get the flu vaccine whilst you’re sick, as your immune system is already compromised. Wait until you’re healthy.
Who can get it for free?
Vulnerable groups in Australia are eligible for a free flu shot:
- Children between 6 months and 5 years of age
- Anyone over 65 years of age
- Aboriginal people or Torres Strait Islanders who are over 6 months of age
- People who have a medical condition that puts them at risk of the severe flu:
- heart disease
- kidney disease
- chronic respiratory conditions
- chronic illnesses that required regular medical attention or hospitalisation in the previous year
- chronic neurological conditions
- impaired immunity
- children aged 6 months to 10 years receiving long-term aspirin therapy.
Some GP clinics also offer the flu shot for free, so check with your local practitioner.