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An essential guide to the flu jab by Dr Laura Cullen

Patient Information

Dr Laura Cullen explains why the flu vaccination is so important and why everyone, whatever their age, should consider taking the jab on a yearly basis.

Dr Laura Cullen
Dr Laura Cullen

Having the flu is nothing to be sniffed at – as anyone who’s gone through it can tell you – and with winter well on its way, we are now heading into the time of year when we’re most at risk from the dreaded bug.

Typically, flu rears its ugly head around the period between September and March; last year, Public Health England reported that cases of flu rose significantly from the end of December 2018 and reached their peak in January and February of 2019. The seriousness of this viral infection is highlighted by the fact that the World Health Organization reports that flu kills between 250,000 and 500,000 people around the world each year; in part because it can lead to serious complications like bronchitis and pneumonia, ear infections in children and – in rare cases – illnesses such as meningitis and encephalitis affecting the brain.

Although it shares a number of symptoms with the common cold, the exhaustion that comes with flu is far more debilitating, making it nigh-on impossible to carry on with day-to-day activities. Fortunately, there’s a very simple way to avoid it; read on for my straightforward guide to getting your flu jab.

Who should get the flu jab?

I think everyone should consider getting the flu jab. Hospitals usually target the most vulnerable groups of patients, but having experienced the flu myself only last year, I know first hand how awful it is and how many days you are out of action – and I’m only 40! You can be in bed for a minimum of three days, but I’ve had patients who have been unable to get out of bed for over a week. So everyone could benefit from avoiding that – particularly people who would find it hard to take time off work, or have children or elderly relatives to look after.

That said, the flu jab is an absolute must for patients over 65, and for patients who have what we call ‘comorbidities’ – meaning other illnesses such as asthma, bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), diabetes or cancer. Anyone who has a long-standing or chronic illness should definitely consider the flu vaccine, too, and I would also strongly recommend it for children aged 0-5.

Who shouldn’t get the flu jab?

If you’ve previously had an anaphylactic reaction to a dose of the flu vaccine, then you shouldn’t get a flu jab – but this is rare. Also, if you’ve been acutely unwell in the run-up to your vaccination, then there are precautions that need to be taken. But all in all, there are very few people who cannot receive any flu vaccine as there are a number of options available, but if you’re in doubt then seek advice from your doctor.

How does the flu jab work?

The principle of the vaccination is injecting a little portion of the virus into your body. You are being exposed to a little piece of the flu virus that is not enough to develop flu but is enough for your body to recognise it as a virus. This causes your body to produce antibodies (proteins which neutralise bacteria and viruses) specific to that virus, which are then heavily stored in your bloodstream. If you ever come across that flu virus again your body will attack it and protect you before you develop any symptoms.

Are there any side effects?

The most common side effect is an ache in the arm that received the injection, and some people notice some very mild flu-like symptoms – low grade fever, malaise, headache – around 24 hours later, but these usually resolve within a day or two. There are others who don’t notice any side effects at all, but it’s worth pointing out any side effects that do occur will be nowhere near as severe as actually having the flu!

Do I still need a flu jab if I had one last year?

Yes! There are lots of different strains and every year the different strains of viruses will change, so it’s crucial that you have your flu vaccine updated every single year. If you’ve been given the flu vaccine the year before it may not protect you the following season. The flu virus is very clever – it keeps adapting, so you need to keep getting the jabs to update your immunity.

Can you still get flu if you’ve had the jab?

If you’ve been really unlucky and come across a strain that hasn’t been covered in this season’s flu jab, or if you were exposed to the flu before you had the vaccine, then yes, it is possible. This is because the vaccine takes a few days to come into effect while your body builds up its immune response.

That’s why it’s so important to get your flu jab as early as possible – ideally in October or November, before cases of the flu start to hit their peak. But it’s never too late, and certainly better late than never, with many doctors arguing that it’s still worth having in January.

How do I get the jab?

It’s very simple. The Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth’s walk-in centre Casualty First is open between 8am-8pm seven days a week where a nurse will be able to give you the vaccine. In addition, you can book an appointment with your GP.

If you’re ever feeling unwell and want to speak to a GP, Dr Laura Cullen is part of the Private GP Practice at  the Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth. To make an appointment with Dr Cullen or another GP please call 020 7432 8269