As the weather gets colder, people are being encouraged to book in for their influenza vaccines, also known as flu jabs or flu shots.
If you’re eligible, you can get the influenza vaccine for free under the National Immunization Program (NIP). For those who aren’t eligible, flu shots are available for a small fee (around $ 25) from pharmacies and GPs.
Vaccination is a safe and effective way to protect you from serious disease caused by influenza and to protect against infection by influenza viruses. Here, we delve into some of the most common questions people might have about the flu shot.
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Flu symptoms vs COVID symptoms
“Influenza is a seasonal viral infection which can cause serious illness. It is caused by a different virus to both the common cold and COVID, although it can present with similar symptoms,” Dr Emma Rees, GP Specialist and Founder of digital healthcare solution, Femmatells 9Honey.
If you contract the flu, symptoms will generally be worse and come on more suddenly than those of a common cold. You will often experience fevers, general body aches and fatigue. COVID can also cause respiratory and general symptoms and you can only definitively tell the difference between conditions is by performing a test. “
The number of cases and deaths in Australia from influenza fluctuates each year. In 2019, before the pandemic, 313,000 lab-confirmed cases and 953 deaths were reported – a number that was 2.7 times higher than the five-year average.
In the first two years of the pandemic, flu numbers plummeted due to prevention measures used to COVID content spread. But experts are warning cases will rise again, especially with the emergence of the ‘Superflu’.
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Why is it important to get the flu shot?
“As flu is a viral infection, treatments are supportive, allowing the immune system a chance to fight the infection,” Dr Rees explains.
“This means that it has the potential to cause serious illness in people with compromised immune systems. It is also very contagious and rapidly circulating in the community.”
Vaccinations help to prevent people from developing the flu and also reduce the severity of the disease in those who contract it but have been vaccinated.
“Evidence shows that fewer people are hospitalized and 31 per cent less people die as a result of contracting the flu when they have been vaccinated. “
Best time to get flu shot – and why do we need it yearly?
Current recommendations are to get vaccinated from April, before the flu season, which generally occurs from June to September.
Dr Rees there are two reasons why people are encouraged to have yearly vaccinations.
“Firstly, the flu virus is constantly changing,” she says. “Researchers anticipate which strains of the flu are likely to be most common in a particular season and the vaccines are updated to try and offer optimal protection against those strains.
“The second reason is that an individual’s protection will decline over time and the vaccine will need to be updated to improve their immune protection. Evidence has shown that the best time frame for this is annually.”
Due to continuous changes in the virus and new strains, the World Health Organization reviews and updates its recommendations for the composition of the vaccine annually. It selects the viruses (mutated versions of the virus) most likely to circulate in the coming season.
The Australian Influenza Vaccine Committee uses this recommendation to determine the composition of influenza vaccines for use in Australia.
Who should get vaccinated?
Ideally, everyone can benefit from a flu vaccination but there are certain groups of people who are at more risk of serious illness than others and the vaccination is offered for free for these people.
“In broad terms, adults over the age of 65, young children between the ages of six months and five, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over the age of six months and pregnant women are all in this group,” Dr Rees explains.
“Anyone over the age of five with a chronic medical condition including cardiac, respiratory, neurological, hematological, diabetes, renal and conditions compromising the immune system are also offered free vaccinations.
“It is worth speaking to your GP if you feel you may be in one of these groups. It is also advised that people working in high risk settings such as hospitals and aged care facilities are also vaccinated against influenza.”
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How effective are vaccines?
“Understanding how effective the vaccine really depends upon the health of the person being vaccinated and how well the vaccine and the circulating strains of influenza are matched,” Dr Rees says.
Estimates of flu vaccine effectiveness is 40-60 per cent in the United States and 30-60 per cent in Australia. This means 30-60 per cent of those vaccinated are less likely to become seriously ill or die from influenza.
“For healthy people the figure can be as high as 70-90 per cent, in elderly people figures of 50-60 per cent have been quoted for prevention of hospitalization and pneumonia,” she adds.
“It is still possible to contract influenza even if you have been vaccinated and if you do develop symptoms, it is best to rest, recuperate and isolate yourself from anyone at risk of serious illness.
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Flu shot side effects
Most influenza vaccines are safe in adults and children.
“Many people worry about the side effects of the flu vaccine. It is important to say that it is an inactive vaccine and you cannot get the flu from the vaccine,” Dr Rees tells 9Honey.
“You may however experience symptoms triggered by your immune system mounting its response to the vaccine and these can include a runny nose, headaches and mild temperatures. They usually pass within a few days and you can use supportive measures to ease your symptoms if they do occur.
“You may also experience pain at the injection site and mild swelling or redness. If this occurs, an ice pack can be helpful and monitor your symptoms. If they fail to improve or get worse, have it reviewed by your doctor.”
Do I have to space out my COVID booster and flu shot?
This year, you can get your flu shot on the same day as your COVID booster.
“It is safe to have the COVID vaccine and the flu vaccine together. You may experience more side effects when more than one vaccine is administered at the same time but most people will experience no ill effects,” Dr Rees says.
“It is important to note that influenza has been less of a problem during the pandemic due to isolation mandates. This is expected to change now that borders have opened and people can travel again, so its even more important that we take advantage of the vaccination program in 2022.
“It’s now easier than ever to chat to a GP, because it can all be done online via platforms such as Femma. “
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