Flu: the facts

 Helen Donovan 6 Nov 2017

Helen Donovan addresses some common concerns and busts some myths about flu vaccination.

Road sign with 'Flu season ahead' written on it

Flu is more than just a nuisance or a nasty cold

The impact of flu is considerable. Every year hundreds of thousands of people see their GP with symptoms and tens of thousands are hospitalised because of flu. On average, 8,000 people a year die because of flu. The flu vaccine has been used since the 1960s to help reduce the numbers of people who contract the infection and minimise the serious consequences for those most at risk: the elderly, those with long term conditions and pregnant women.

Why is the vaccine recommended for certain people?

Flu is very infectious. The aim of the annual flu plan is to vaccinate those at greatest risk of serious consequences (see above) and those more likely to transmit the infection. The vaccine is also offered to children, who can become very unwell with flu and easily spread the infection in schools and nurseries, and to those who care for vulnerable people, such as frontline health and social care staff and carers.

Why are health care staff reluctant to get the vaccine? 

Last year 63% of frontline health care workers in England had the vaccine, up from 50% the previous year. But there is still considerable variation between organisations and just under 40% of staff are still not having the vaccine. Some of the reasons often given for this are:

“The vaccine is not very effective”

There are many different strains of flu and the makeup of the virus changes every year. The vaccine changes every year to reflect this and will consist of either three or four strains of the virus. The World Health Organization determines which strains will be in the vaccine every year after carefully mapping the circulating flu strains. The effectiveness of the vaccine will vary depending on how well the viruses are matched to those actually circulating. So while it’s true the flu vaccine is not as effective in comparison to some other vaccines there is good evidence that immunisation reduces the incidence of severe disease and hospitalisations in those most at risk.

“I keep myself fit and well and never get ill”

It is true that younger, fitter individuals are statistically less likely to be seriously ill with the flu. Even if they do get the infection, flu is a relatively short-lived and self-limiting illness. But it’s also very infectious and easily transmissible, which means you can pass the virus to others, who may become seriously ill, even if you don’t have the symptoms yourself.

“I always get ill after having the vaccine”

As with any vaccine, the short-lived side effects can sometimes mimic the illness. This is as a result of the immune response, with symptoms such as a slight temperature and muscle aches. These symptoms are normal and generally very mild. The vaccine cannot give you flu and is continually tested and monitored.

There are always other viruses circulating which can cause flu-like symptoms. Sometimes people may get one of these shortly after receiving the flu jab and think it’s caused by the vaccine. But once again, the viruses in the flu vaccination cannot cause infection.

“It is difficult to get the vaccine where I work”

Employers are responsible for making the vaccine available to those likely to be in contact with vulnerable patients. As nurses, we also have a professional responsibility to make sure we protect patients and therefore we need to ask for the vaccine. Contact your occupational health department or line manager to find out how you can get vaccinated. It takes 10-14 days to develop immunity following vaccination, so it’s important to get vaccinated as soon as possible before the flu season really starts.

Find out more about the flu vaccine on NHS Employers flu fighter website.

Helen Donovan

Helen Donovan

RCN Professional Lead for Public Health


Helen has wide nursing experience working within the NHS and in local authority public health teams, as well as in health protection. She has a special interest in immunisation.

Page last updated - 05/09/2018