In a year of Covid-19, this year’s flu vaccine is considered to be more important than ever.
So much so that the group of people eligible to get the vaccine for free has been extended to millions more people by the UK government, in what has been called “the most comprehensive flu vaccination programme in the UK’s history”.
Last flu season saw relatively low levels of influenza activity in the UK, according to data from Public Health England (PHE).
The health body estimates that, on average, around 17,000 people die from flu in England annually. But these numbers can vary greatly from year to year, depending on the severity of the season and the strains knocking around.
The best protection we have against flu is the vaccine itself (despite it not being 100% effective), as well as taking necessary hygiene precautions.
So, what do you need to know about this year’s jab?
Who should get the flu vaccine?
The national flu immunisation programme aims to protect those at risk of becoming seriously ill from flu over winter. It is offered free of charge (on the NHS) to the following groups:
adults 65 and over
people with certain medical conditions (including children in at-risk groups from 6 months of age)
people living with someone who’s at high risk from coronavirus (on the NHS shielded patient list)
children aged 2 and 3 on 31 August 2020
children in primary school
children in year 7 (secondary school)
frontline health or social care workers
Later in the year, the flu vaccine will also be given to people aged 50 to 64, according to the government’s recent flu announcement.
Anyone else can get the vaccine at their local pharmacy, but will have to pay.
When’s the best time to get the vaccine?
The best time to have the vaccine is from now to the end of November. However people considered at-risk will be invited to attend flu clinics from September. The vaccine is offered throughout the winter, so you won’t miss out if you haven’t had it by December.
Due to large numbers of people being offered the vaccine for free this year, it’s likely some groups will be prioritised – for example, those with underlying medical conditions. In contrast, those aged 50 to 64 years-old may be invited for a free jab later in the flu season, subject to vaccine supply.
Can the flu vaccine help fight Covid-19?
No, it can’t. But it is “more important than ever” this year, says Public Health England (PHE), due to the risk from Covid-19.
While the vaccine can’t protect you against coronavirus, it’s thought if plenty of people have the flu jab this autumn, it’ll help the NHS cope better through the winter months – especially if there’s another spike in coronavirus cases.
Marc Donovan, chief pharmacist at Boots, explains: “Although the flu vaccination does not prevent coronavirus in any way, both of these viruses have an impact on the respiratory system so if you can prevent the flu, it can be a huge benefit to your overall health including your immune system.”
What flu vaccines are available?
The standard jab
This year’s quadrivalent (four-strain) vaccine contains the following:
- A/Hawaii/70/2019 (H1N1) virus strain;
- A/Hong Kong/45/2019 (H3N2) virus strain;
- B/Washington/02/2019 (B/Victoria lineage) virus strain;
- B/Phuket/3073/2013 (B/Yamagata lineage) virus strain.
It is available free of charge to at-risk groups, while the general public have to pay (unless you can get it for free through a work scheme).
There are two types of this vaccine, one is egg-based while the other is cell-grown. The egg-based vaccine has a slight alteration – instead of the A/Hawaii virus strain it contains an A/Guangdong-Maonan (H1N1)-like virus.
The nasal spray
Children aged two to 17 years old, in an eligible group (see above), are offered the quadrivalent vaccine featuring the same strains, but given as a nasal spray instead of an injection.
Children under two, who are considered at-risk, are given the vaccine as an injection rather than nasal spray.
The immune-boosting jab
People aged 65 and over are often given the adjuvanted trivalent vaccine, which works by improving the body’s immune response. This is important because older adults’ bodies typically do not respond as well to the flu vaccine due to their naturally weaker immune systems.
Where can you get the vaccine?
:: GP practices.
:: Pharmacies (including Superdrug, Boots, Lloyds Pharmacy, Asda and Tesco).
:: Some people may be offered the flu vaccine through their work’s health scheme.
:: Your midwifery service might also offer it if you’re pregnant.
Are there any side effects?
Side effects of the nasal vaccine can include a runny or blocked nose, headache, tiredness and some loss of appetite.
The injection can cause a sore arm, low grade fever and aching muscles for a day or two afterwards.
If you’ve had a severe reaction to a flu jab in the past, you’re advised not to have one again.
Is the flu vaccine suitable for vegans?
All of the recommended flu vaccines use animal-derived products in their production, according to PHE. “The vaccines for the coming season are grown on either eggs or a cell line derived from an animal,” they explain.
Some vegans might choose not to have the flu vaccine because of the use of animal-derived products. However PHE notes that vaccination is recommended because it provides the best protection against serious diseases.
The Vegetarian Society also recommends that those at risk continue to accept medicines they need, including vaccination.
What are the symptoms of flu?
Flu differs from the common cold in that symptoms are usually far worse. People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose, while flu symptoms often come on quickly with sufferers experiencing a fever, a dry chesty cough, tiredness, the chills, joint pain or aching muscles.
Much of the time it will make them too unwell to do anything.
Other symptoms include: diarrhoea, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, a sore throat, a blocked or runny nose, sneezing, loss of appetite and difficulty sleeping.
How to tell flu apart from Covid-19
Flu and Covid-19 symptoms do tend to overlap so if you experience a fever, continuous cough or lose your sense of smell or taste you should self-isolate and book a Covid-19 test.
Researchers identified one possible way of telling the two respiratory illnesses apart. The likely order Covid-19 symptoms first appear, they found, are: fever, then cough and muscle pain, followed by nausea, and/or vomiting, and diarrhoea. Gastrointestinal issues, in particular, may set the coronavirus apart from other illnesses like influenza, helping doctors to diagnose it, they said.
The nose could also help us tell our symptoms apart from other illnesses this winter. A study, published in the journal Rhinology, compared how people with loss of smell and taste (anosmia) from Covid-19 differed from those with other causes of upper respiratory tract infections and found smell loss was “much more profound” in Covid-19 patents.
Distinguishing features of smell loss caused by Covid-19 included being able to breathe freely, not having a runny or blocked nose, and being unable to detect bitter or sweet tastes.
Ways to prevent flu and Covid-19
Practise good hand hygiene – for example, washing your hands with soap and warm water before preparing and eating food, or after using public transport –and avoid having unnecessary contact with other people if you or they are experiencing symptoms of flu.
You should also continue to adhere to social distancing, particularly as more people spend time indoors during the cooler months.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.