What Is The Flu Vaccine And Can It Make You Ill?

(Image credit: Unknown)

In general, when people get ill in the winter it’s usually a cold they’ve caught, rather than the full-blown flu. It’s pretty easy to tell the difference, because if you’re able to get out of bed and function at all, it’s a cold, not the flu.

The flu is really nasty, so much so that many people are entitled to a free flu shot to try and ward off the illness each year. While the flu vaccine doesn’t protect against every strain of the illness, it can stop you getting sick or lessen the effects if you do get ill.

With more info on what the vaccine is, who can get it for free and why it can’t actually cause the flu itself, here’s Richard Pebody, head of flu surveillance at Public Health England.

What is the flu vaccine?

Flu – short for influenza - is a common infectious viral illness spread by coughs and sneezes that affects the respiratory system. Because flu is caused by viruses and not bacteria, antibiotics won’t treat it and a bout of flu can lead to hospitalisation, permanent disability or even death among vulnerable groups. These include older people, pregnant women and people with an underlying health condition. The vaccine is the best defence we have against what can be a serious illness.

For adults the vaccine is given as an injection, for children it is a nasal spray. The flu vaccine stimulates your body’s immune system to make antibodies to attack the flu virus. Antibodies are proteins that recognise and fight off germs, such as viruses, that have invaded your blood.

If you’re exposed to the flu virus after you have had the flu vaccine, your immune system will recognise the virus and immediately produce antibodies to fight it.

Having the flu vaccine is the best way to protect yourself and those around you. If you’re eligible, you need to have a flu vaccination every year as the antibodies that protect you from flu decline over time, and flu strains can also change from year to year.

What side effects can people expect from it?

Those having the injected vaccine may get a sore arm at the site of the injection, a slight temperature and aching muscles for a day or two after the vaccination – all of which can be managed by taking paracetamol.

Side effects of the nasal vaccine, which is given to children, may include a runny or blocked nose, headache, tiredness and some loss of appetite.

Can the flu vaccine cause the flu?

The flu vaccine cannot give people flu because it contains either a dead or weakened form of the virus.

Who is entitled to get it for free?

All primary school-age children, two- and three-year-olds, adults over 65 years old, pregnant women, people with underlying health conditions, and health and social care workers are eligible for the free flu vaccine.

Is it worth paying for if you’re not entitled to get it for free?

The free flu vaccination is offered to those who are at increased risk from the effects of flu. For healthy individuals, flu can be very unpleasant, but people usually recover within two to seven days.

Adults who are not eligible for a flu vaccine on the NHS can pay for a flu vaccination privately. The flu vaccine may be available from pharmacies or in supermarkets. It’s provided on a private patient basis and costs up to £20.

Nick Harris-Fry
Senior writer

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.