The first batch of government-funded flu vaccines have arrived, and many medical centres and pharmacies have been offering private flu vaccines since March. But do you need the flu vaccine? What are the side effects? How effective is it? If you don’t get it, will you catch the flu?
What is the flu?
Any conversation about the flu vaccine should start with the flu, or influenza. The flu is more than just a cold. I last caught the flu when I was a teenager, and I can still remember that terrible feeling of fatigue. I felt like I had been run over by a bus. I kept trying to get out of bed to finish my school assignments, and I kept having to get back in. And if you know me, that is very unusual!
The flu hits you hard for a good 5-7 days of fevers, body aches, general lethargy and malaise, and sometimes a runny nose, cough and sore throat. But I think the main symptom that always makes me think of the flu is when the patient comes staggering in like they’ve been absolutely flattened.
I think it’s also important to emphasise that the flu is not benign. In particular groups of people, the flu can go on to cause secondary complications, like pneumonia, bronchitis, or even meningitis.
What is the flu vaccine?
The flu vaccine is an inactivated vaccine that contains protein subunits of the flu virus. This means that you cannot catch the flu from the flu vaccine. These subunits are sufficient to prompt an immune response from your immune system. This means that if your immune system comes in contact with the actual flu virus, it will be ready and raring to go to defend you from infection.
Who should have the flu vaccine?
The Australian government funds the flu vaccine for particular groups of people:
- All Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged over 6 months
- All children 6 months to less than 5 years of age
- All individuals aged 5 and over with medical risk conditions (g. asthma, diabetes, immune conditions)
- All pregnant women at any stage
- All individuals aged 65 years and over
For these groups of people, you can go to any medical practice and have the flu vaccine given to you for free. Some medical practices might charge you to administer the vaccine, however. At my practice in Warringah Mall, we choose to bulk bill the visit.
Who shouldn’t have the flu vaccine?
There are very few contraindications to the flu vaccine. That means there are very few people who should definitely not have the flu. The manufacturers have said on the official product information anyone with anaphylaxis to eggs or to previous flu vaccines should not have the flu vaccine.
It is also probably better to avoid the flu vaccine if you have had a (rare) neurological condition called Guillain-Barre syndrome.
What are the side effects of the flu vaccine?
As I said above, you can’t get the flu from the flu vaccine. You can, however, get a flu-like illness mimicking the flu as a rare side effect of the vaccine. Most patients only experience a sore arm where the vaccine was administered, but some might experience other side effects like a headache, muscle aches, fatigue, vomiting or a fever. These side effects, while uncomfortable, are not permanent.
Should I get the flu vaccine?
As with all health decisions, this one is very much up to you. For the above groups, this decision was made because these groups are at higher risk than the general population of developing complications related to the flu. For example, young children are more likely to develop pneumonia after the flu. A few years’ ago, we had a severe flu season, and there were some cases reported in the media of children dying from complications from the flu. This prompted the government to make the decision to provide the flu vaccine to children less than 5 years of age free of charge.
Even if you aren’t in that at-risk group, the flu vaccination can still be of value. First of all, it will reduce your risk of catching the flu, and therefore being pretty sick for a number of days. But it can also prevent you from spreading the flu to others who may be more susceptible to complications, or who may not respond very well to the flu vaccine for various reasons (for example, having chronic immune system problems). But of course- it is all up to you.
It’s already Winter, is it too late?
It is never too late to get the flu vaccine, because the flu virus can circulate all year round (we saw a few flu cases in January from patients travelling to the Northern Hemisphere for holidays). The flu virus does mutate and change though, which is why you need to have the flu vaccine every year.
Where can I get the flu vaccine?
We have just received our batch of Government funded flu vaccines, so if you fall into one of the above groups, then feel free to book here and come and receive your free flu vaccine. If you do not fall into one of those groups, but would still like to have the flu vaccine, we are providing private flu vaccines for $10.