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There are a few things in life you can count on when it comes to winter in Australia – the days get shorter, sleeves get longer and someone, somewhere will tell you why you shouldn’t get the flu shot.
The myths surrounding influenza and the flu vaccine are like a John Farnham farewell tour; they just keep coming back. So, this year, we’ve partnered with nib’s Group Medical Advisor, Dr Hamish Black, to debunk some of the most commonly heard myths.
Colds and flu are caused by different viruses. Much of the time when people say they have ‘the flu’, they really just have a cold. A sniffle and sore throat that doesn’t stop you in your tracks probably isn’t the flu. In contrast, symptoms that make you want to stay in bed such as headaches, muscle aches and pains, tiredness, fever and a cough are typical of the flu.
“The flu generally makes you feel much more unwell than a cold and it can last for a week or longer. Tiredness can persist for a few weeks following,” says Hamish.
“The flu can also sometimes cause serious complications, such as bronchitis, pneumonia and heart inflammation.”
No. 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 the side effects can be similar to symptoms of the flu.
Hamish explains, “Mild side effects, like soreness at the injection site, are not uncommon and you may also get some swelling and redness where you had the injection. Less commonly, some people may experience fever, tiredness and muscle aches, but side effects usually last only a day or two.”
Hamish confirms that true allergic reactions to influenza vaccination are very rare.
People who are known to 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. Special precautions are taken in people who have a severe allergy to hen’s eggs.
The flu shot does sometimes cause a fever in children. However, fever (especially high fever) following vaccination in children has been uncommon in recent years.
In 2010, one brand of influenza vaccine caused some young children to have high fevers, in some cases leading to serious complications. This brand of vaccine is no longer used in Australia.
“Each year, about 5-10% of Australians get the flu and some years it can be as high as 20% especially amongst children,” says Hamish.
In 2020, it’s possible that our social distancing and increased hygiene activities, such as regular handwashing, will decrease the spread of seasonal influenza, but that’s not something we should rely on.
“There’s no vaccine for COVID-19, but getting vaccinated against influenza is the most effective way to protect yourself against the flu,” explains Hamish.
“It won’t protect you against COVID-19, but it will reduce your chances of getting influenza and you wouldn’t want to get both at once, which is entirely possible and has been documented in China".
This winter, our health system may be overloaded with COVID-19 patients, and a bad flu season wouldn’t help. The last thing Australia needs is a perfect storm of respiratory illness.
It’s important to look after yourself in the lead up to winter and getting a flu vaccine is just one way to help minimise your risk of catching influenza. For more information on the 2020 flu vaccine, including whether you’re eligible for a free shot, check out our article: Everything you need to know about the 2020 flu vaccine.