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Everything you need to know about the 2019 flu vaccine

6 minute read
A young woman laying under a blanket on a leather lounge and blowing her nose.

If you’re fit, healthy and haven’t had anything more serious than a chest cold in years, you might be questioning the value of a flu shot. Is it really worth the hassle?

With experts warning Australia is facing a deadly flu season with three times more people diagnosed with the virus so far this year than in 2018, the short answer is yes.

Recovering from the flu takes more than a few cough drops and some chicken soup – the virus can be serious enough to send you to hospital or leave you bedridden for weeks, even if you’re young and otherwise well. In fact, every year hundreds of Australians die from influenza.

Getting vaccinated is the most effective way to protect yourself from getting (and potentially spreading) this deadly virus. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misinformation about the flu shot that might be preventing you from taking that next step, which is why we’ve outlined everything you need to know about this year’s vaccine.

What are your chances of getting the flu?

Each year, about 5-10% of people in Australian communities get the flu. Some years it can be as high as 20%. That means that your chances of getting the flu could be as high as one in five, and for kids it can be even higher.

The 2019 flu season to date:

An infographic depicting flu season data from 2014 to 2019Source: Immunisation Coalition

Why get a flu vaccine?

To put simply, a flu vaccine helps protect you against the flu, and it’s recommended by Australia’s Chief Medical Officer that all Australians aged six months or older are vaccinated.

Getting vaccinated also helps reduce the spread of influenza. So by getting a flu shot you’re not only protecting yourself and those close to you, but also the wider community. This is especially important for vulnerable people, such as babies under six months of age and those with certain rare medical conditions for whom vaccination is not safe.

How does the flu shot work?

The influenza virus is constantly changing and mutating, creating new strains of the virus. The flu shot is designed to protect you against three or four different strains of influenza virus that are currently circulating in Australia. That’s why you need to get vaccinated every year to be protected from that year’s strains.

Unfortunately, the flu shot doesn’t give 100% protection against influenza. But even though some people who are vaccinated still get the flu, their symptoms are usually milder, and they are far less likely to develop complications from the virus.

Can the flu shot give you the flu?

No. This is a common misconception, but there are no live viruses in flu vaccines, meaning that the flu shot cannot give you influenza. However, some people do experience side effects after having the flu vaccine, and sometimes these side effects can be similar to symptoms of the flu. It’s important to note these side effects usually only last a day or two.

Mild side effects, such as soreness at the injection site, are not uncommon. There may also be some swelling and redness where you had the injection. Less common side effects can include fever, tiredness and muscle aches.

What about allergic reactions to the flu vaccine?

The risk of a severe allergic reaction to an influenza vaccination is very low, at an estimated 0.000135% (that’s 1.35 people per million doses).

People who have had a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to the flu shot (or any ingredients of the flu shot) in the past should not have the flu vaccine. Care should also be taken in people who have a severe allergy to hen’s eggs, as they play a central role in the manufacturing of flu vaccines.

What does a flu shot involve?

When you go to have a flu shot, the doctor or nurse will ask you a few questions about your health and previous vaccinations.

Before giving the injection (usually into the arm), they will rub the area of skin with an alcohol swab to sterilise the area. An age-specific vaccine will be used to give the best, safest protection. The injection should only take a couple of seconds and shouldn’t be too painful.

The whole process is usually very quick, and you can get on with your day knowing that you’ve reduced your risk of getting sick this winter.

A bandaid being put on a girl's arm.

When to get vaccinated?

It’s generally recommended that you get vaccinated before the flu season begins. In most parts of Australia, the flu season is usually between June and September, with the peak number of people being diagnosed in August.

The start of 2019 has seen an unusual summer spike in flu cases in many areas in Australia. As a result, some states are encouraging Aussies to get vaccinated earlier than usual this year. The most important thing is to get the flu shot, so even if you don’t get around to it until the end of the flu season, it’s still worth it.

Where to get vaccinated?

You can get a flu shot at your local general practice or community health clinic, with some pharmacies also offering the vaccine.

Are you eligible for a free flu vaccination?

There are some groups of people who are known to be at increased risk of becoming very unwell if they get the flu. These people may have severe symptoms or develop complications from the flu, such as bronchitis, pneumonia, middle ear infection and sinusitis. People at increased risk and who are eligible for free vaccination under the National Immunisation Program include:

  • people aged 65 years and older;
  • pregnant women (vaccination is safe at any time during pregnancy, and gives protection to both mother and baby);
  • Indigenous Australians older than six months;
  • people with certain ongoing (chronic) illnesses who are older than six months.

Please note, to receive the free vaccination under the National Immunisation Program it must be administered by a GP.

Children aged six months to up to five years can also receive a free flu vaccination as part of state and territory immunisation programs. Vaccination is strongly recommended for children in this age group as they are at increased risk of needing hospital treatment.

Since 2018, specific vaccines have also been available for people aged 65 and older.

Protect your loved ones from the flu

Vaccination is the best way to safeguard yourself (and those you love) from influenza. But here are a few other ways to help stop the spread of infections such as the flu.

  • Stay home when you are sick: Take time off work or study and refrain from catching up with friends while you’re unwell to help stop the spread of germs.
  • Practise good cough etiquette: Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. If you don’t have a tissue, use the inside of your elbow rather than your hand as this stops germs from being transferred to surfaces such as handrails and doorknobs.
  • Throw tissues straight into the bin: Don’t leave used tissues lying on a bedside table or on the floor.
  • Wash your hands frequently: Ensure you regularly wash your hands, especially after blowing your nose (or helping a sick child with a runny nose), throwing away used tissues or rubbing your eyes. Use soap when washing and dry your hands properly using a clean towel afterwards.

It’s also important to take extra care to look after yourself in the lead-up to cold and flu season. For some tips on maximising your immune system, check out our article on 5 health habits to embrace before winter.

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