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Should you get the flu shot?

A yearly flu shot can be the most effective way to protect yourself from the virus. We answer some of the most commonly asked questions about it.

Stephanie Osfield
June 2019

When winter hits, you probably pull out your warm clothes and do your best to stay flu-free. This might include avoiding people who cough, sniffle and sneeze, and other sound prevention strategies like washing your hands regularly. But do you need the flu shot too?

“Influenza is a very contagious infection that affects the airways and can cause serious health complications, such as bronchitis, pneumonia and heart problems,” says Dr Brian Morton, spokesperson for the Australian Medical Association.

“A yearly flu vaccination is the most effective way to protect yourself.”

How do you catch the flu?

“When you cough or sneeze, the droplets that carry the flu virus can travel up to a metre,” says Professor Dominic Dwyer, director of Public Health Pathology, NSW.

“The airborne flu virus can be breathed in or spread by germ-covered hands or droplets landing on surfaces like door knobs and computer keyboards.”

But I had the flu shot last year, do I really need it again?

There are 3 main strains of flu (A, B and C) and some sub-strains as well.

“Every year, the strains change, which is why you need the latest seasonal vaccine,” says Prof Dwyer.

A new flu vaccine is prepared each year to best match the strains predicted for the coming flu season. Plus, the protection provided by the previous year’s vaccine lessens over time. Health Direct suggests the flu shot is most effective for 3–4 months after you have it. 

Peak flu season is between June to September. Heading into the 2019 winter, reports have already shown signs of both a new A and B flu strain in Australia.

Who should get the flu shot?

This year, more than 6 million doses have been secured to ensure Australians who are most at risk of getting sick during this year’s flu season are able to access influenza vaccines through the government’s National Immunisation Program.

The following groups of people are at higher risk of getting complications from the flu according to the NSW Government’s Department of Health. They also may be able to get the flu shot for free through Medicare.

  • people aged 65 years and older
  • pregnant women
  • people with chronic health conditions and certain medical risk conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, severe asthma, lung disease and kidney disease
  • people with low or compromised immunity
  • children aged 6 months to 5 years
  • people from an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander background aged 6 months or older.

Annual vaccination is recommended by the government for anyone 6 months of age and older, with those not eligible under the program able to pay for the vaccine. The government recommends that people who are carers or work in health care or with children also get the flu shot.

Up-to-date flu vaccines are available from your GP, community health clinics and some pharmacies.

The flu shot is generally not covered under private health insurance.

Flu myths and facts

Myth: You can catch the flu from having the vaccine.

Fact: “The flu shot doesn’t contain the live flu virus, so the vaccine can’t give you a bout of flu,” says Dr Morton.

You can get side effects from the flu shot, though, including fever, tiredness and muscle aches. They usually only last 1–2 days.

Myth: The flu shot covers you for all of the flu strains that may be circulating this winter.

Fact: The flu vaccine is as up-to-date as possible, and covers particular strains of the virus identified by the World Health Organization each year. Vaccines are updated twice a year, but they can’t cover all strains.

Myth: A flu is just like a bad cold.

Fact: The flu virus is highly contagious and more serious than a cold. In some cases it can even be life threatening. People over 65 are at higher risk of severe illness or serious complications. Getting the flu shot won’t protect you from catching the common cold over winter, or another virus.

Myth: When you have the flu you need antibiotics to get better.

Fact: Antibiotics are for bacterial infections.

“Colds and flus are caused by viruses, which don’t respond to antibiotic treatment,” says Prof Dwyer. “If your flu is severe you may need to be treated in hospital. Otherwise, the best way to recover from a flu is to take mild painkillers and get plenty of bed rest.”

You should also drink lots of water. Also avoid contact with others as much as possible, so you don’t spread it around.

Flu checklist: do I have the flu?

A cold has milder symptoms and usually only lasts a few days. The flu usually lasts a week or more, often forces you to stay in bed and could cause more severe symptoms including:

  • fever or chills and sweats
  • aching muscles and joints
  • a sore throat, cough or runny or blocked nose
  • weakness and fatigue
  • headache.

If you’re fit and healthy and have flu-like symptoms, Healthdirect says you probably won't need to see your doctor. But see your GP if:

  • your child has flu-like symptoms and is under 5 years old
  • you are 65 years or older and living in an aged care home
  • you have a chronic health condition, such as severe asthma, heart and kidney disease, type 2 diabetes or a lung disease (for example cystic fibrosis)
  • you have a disease affecting your muscles and/or the nerves that control them, and which can affect your ability to breathe (for example muscular dystrophy)
  • you are very obese (BMI of 35 or higher)
  • you have a weakened immune system (for example people living with HIV, people taking medicines to suppress their immune system)
  • you are homeless
  • you smoke
  • you are from an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander background
  • you have a weakened immune system
  • you are pregnant.

Healthdirect advises that you should get help straight away if you have chest pain, are short of breath, dizzy or confused, or if you’re vomiting a lot.

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