Though you can get ill at any time of the year, influenza (flu) is most common in cold weather so surgeries and chemists begin to offer ‘seasonal flu’ vaccinations as we head into autumn.
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Regular colds and viruses can be very nasty but bouts of flu are often much worse and can be dangerous for particular groups including the young and old and those with pre-existing health problems. The illness is highly infectious and can spread quickly, usually through small droplets coughed or sneezed into the air by an infected person. Its most common symptoms include fever, chills, headaches and extreme tiredness, which in most cases are mild but in others can be very serious.
You can prevent the spreading of the flu virus by covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze, washing your hands regularly with soap and using anti-bacterial hand gels. And, however important your job, your colleagues will appreciate you keeping your bugs to yourself rather than spreading them around the office, so if you’re sick stay home.
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Should you have a flu jab?The idea of losing a week to shivering, fever, aches and pains and generally feeling unable to get out of bed isn’t particularly appealing, especially if you know from past experience you’re susceptible to the lurgy. An effective way to prevent yourself or your family falling ill is to consider a flu jab. They’re not universally available on the NHS but at-risk groups qualify and if you’re keen you can pay to have the vaccine privately.
As the flu virus can have many different strains, the jab is updated each year according to advice by the World Health Organisation, so if you’ve had it previously doesn’t mean you’re still covered. This year’s winter flu jab protects against the same three strains of flu as last year, which include the H1N1 (swine flu) strain. It's important to remember that a flu vaccine isn't a guarantee as they are not 100 per cent effective, but they do remain the most effective protection against the illness.
Getting vaccinatedThe flu vaccination is an injection into your arm. You may experience minor side effects after the jab, such as an elevated temperature or aching muscles for a few days afterwards – but these should be mild and far better than flu itself.
The best time to have a flu jab is in the autumn, between September and early November. It’s best to organise your vaccination as early as possible though, because it takes between 10-21 days for the vaccine to become fully effective. Once you’ve had the vaccine, it should last for the entire flu season.
Pharmacies such as Boots offer a £12.99 flu jab service for those over 16 years old. Asda has also recently announced it will be offering vaccines for £7.
Who is considered ‘at-risk?’The flu can affect any person, no matter how old or young but certain groups of people are considered more at risk because their immune systems may not be able to handle the effects of the flu virus. The NHS offers these people flu jabs free of charge.
The NHS recommends you get the flu vaccine if you:• Are aged 65 years old or over
• Are pregnant (see below)
• Are a health or social care worker
• Have one of the following serious medical conditions: a chronic respiratory complaint (such as asthma), heart, kidney, liver or neurological disease, diabetes or a weakened immune system due to HIV or chemotherapy
If you have another chronic or serious medical condition, have had a stroke or major surgery or live with someone who has a weakened immune system speak to your doctor, as you may also be able to have the vaccine for free.
It is safe to have a flu jab in pregnancy?Yes. The NHS recommends that all pregnant women should have the flu vaccine, whatever stage of pregnancy they are in. Why? Because there is good evidence that pregnant women have an increased risk of developing complications if they get flu, particularly from the H1N1 virus.
Having a flu vaccine doesn’t carry any risks for either mother or baby. In fact, some studies have shown that a mum vaccinated while pregnant may pass the protection on to their baby, which can last for the first few months of their lives.
What about babies or children?It is recommended that babies less than six months old do not have the flu vaccination, even if they have a medical condition as listed above.
Currently the NHS suggests you discuss with your doctor before having your child vaccinated, as not all vaccines are suitable for children.
However, it was recently announced that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) recommends that all children, aged from 2 to 17, have the annual flu vaccination. This vaccine will be given as a nasal spray, instead of an injection, but is unlikely to be offered before 2014 so for now we have to face the needle.