With the flu and COVID-19 expected to be in wide circulation together this winter, we are urging more people than ever to get their free flu shot if they qualify. In this blog, we answer some common questions about this year’s flu season.
Why do we expect a difficult winter?
This is the first winter that COVID-19 and seasonal flu will circulate together without a national blockade that helped stop the spread last year.
The flu is unpredictable and activity levels vary from year to year. However, health experts warn that this winter we could see a resurgence of the flu after last winter’s low levels. Different strains of influenza are present each year and we have lower population immunity after very little flu last year. At the same time, fewer people than last year are adopting social distancing and wearing masks.
We also know that people infected with both COVID-19 and the flu are at a higher risk of dying, so if you’re eligible it is vital that you receive the flu vaccine and all doses of COVID-19 vaccine you are due.
What can you do to protect yourself and others?
The best way to protect yourself and others is to get vaccinated, ideally in the fall or early winter before the flu starts to spread. It is also important to stick to good habits, such as wearing masks in crowded spaces and washing your hands regularly.
If you get sick, you need to avoid mixing with others to stop passing it on. Stay hydrated, stay warm, and call 111 if you are concerned, especially if you have underlying health conditions, are pregnant or are 65 and over.
Taking steps such as staying at home if possible while you are unwell can reduce the spread of the infection. There are some facilities, such as nursing homes, where staff will have to abstain from work if they are symptomatic of a flu epidemic and residents will be asked to isolate themselves if they test positive for the flu, as set forth in the guidelines published by the UKHSA.
Who is entitled to a vaccine?
In England, more than 35 million people are now entitled to a free flu vaccine and so far 7.5 million people have been invited to accept an offer of a free booster vaccine for COVID-19.
More than 80% of people aged 65 and over had the flu shot last year in the UK, surpassing the global target of 75% and we have a target of at least 85% of that. group this flu season.
We also strongly encourage other eligible groups to obtain their vaccines, including people with prior health conditions, such as asthma and heart disease, pregnant women and eligible children (age 2 and 3; and schoolchildren under the age of 11). Schoolchildren should get the flu shot at school.
If you are eligible for a free flu shot, you can get it from your GP or any pharmacy that offers NHS flu shots. Some people may receive an invitation to come forward for a vaccination from their family doctor’s office or by letter. However, you don’t have to wait to be invited before booking an appointment at your doctor’s office or pharmacy.
Frontline health and social care workers should be offered the flu shot through their employer. They may be able to get it on the job or through another local service. Health care or social care workers employed by a registered residential care or nursing home, registered home care organization or hospice, and anyone providing health or social care through direct payments or personal health budgets you can also have it in a doctor’s office or pharmacy.
Do pregnant women need a flu shot this year?
All pregnant women should have the flu shot to protect themselves and their babies. Pregnancy alters the way the body handles infections such as the flu. Influenza infection increases the chances that pregnant women and their babies need intensive care.
The flu vaccine can be safely administered at any stage of pregnancy, from conception onwards.
Pregnant women benefit from the flu shot because it can:
- reduce the risk of serious complications such as pneumonia, particularly in the later stages of pregnancy
- reduce the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth or premature baby
- they help protect their baby who will continue to have some immunity to the flu during the first few months of life
- reduce the chance of the mother passing the infection to her newborn
What flu vaccines are available in the UK?
There are several types of flu vaccine. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization (JCVI) annually reviews the latest evidence on flu vaccines and recommends the type of vaccine to offer to patients. Recommended vaccines vary by age. You will be offered the one that works best for you.
- Children between the ages of 2 and 17 are offered a quick and painless nasal spray vaccine.
- Adults aged 18 to 64 at increased risk of influenza: There are several types, including low-egg and egg-free vaccines.
- Adults aged 65 and over are usually offered a vaccine that contains an adjuvant that helps the immune system create a stronger response to the vaccine. It is offered to people in this age group because their immune systems tend to respond less well to vaccines.
Some babies may not have the nasal spray, so they will be offered an injected vaccine. And children under the age of 2 who are in a high-risk group for the flu will also be offered an injected flu vaccine as the nasal spray is not licensed for children under the age of 2.
What should you do if you are unsure if you have the flu or COVID-19?
If you are not okay with cold and flu symptoms, try to stay home if you can, until it is better to stop passing it on to others. Some symptoms of COVID-19 and flu overlap, so take a PCR test if you find:
- high temperature
- a new, continuous cough
- a loss or change in your sense of smell or taste
If you have any of the above symptoms, stay home until you get the result. If the PCR test result is negative but you still have symptoms, you should avoid mixing with others until you feel well.
Is it safe to bring the flu shot and the COVID-19 vaccine closer together?
The flu program will run alongside the COVID-19 recall program. Mostly, patients eligible for the COVID-19 booster are also eligible for a flu shot.
In some areas, people could be offered the COVID-19 vaccine in one arm and the flu vaccine in the other on the same day, although this will not be available in all areas. Doing them at the same time is generally fine. However, it is important not to delay either vaccine in the expectation of being able to have them together.
As is the case with any vaccination, it is not a good idea to get vaccinated while you are sick of something else. It is recommended that you wait for healing before booking your appointment.
Are people being tested for flu in the UK?
The flu is usually diagnosed based on clinical signs and symptoms rather than tests. These symptoms may include fever, cough, runny / stuffy nose, sore throat, fictitious or intestinal symptoms (most commonly in children) and generalized symptoms (headache, fatigue or muscle pain). Flu symptoms can come on quickly.
Flu testing is mainly done as part of clinical care for inpatients, emergency room patients, or people with risk factors such as a severely compromised immune system. For suspected influenza outbreaks in nursing homes, tests may be performed in regional public health laboratories.
The SSN website has more information on the flu and vaccination schedule.