From the expert: "Flu vaccination is still important"

Winter is already here and it is a timely reminder for parents and the local community to have their annual flu vaccination.

Influenza or flu is highly contagious and is mainly spread by droplets made when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Influenza can also be spread through touching surfaces where infected droplets have landed. Symptoms of the flu include runny nose, sneezing, cough or sore throat, fever and chills, headache and body aches.

Behaviours such as increased handwashing and social distancing helped to stop the spread of flu viruses in the community last year but health experts stress that getting the annual flu vaccination is still important. The best way to protect yourself and your family from flu is to have a flu vaccination.

Dr Frank Beard is a public health physician who leads the coverage, evaluation and surveillance team at the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (NCIRS). His team monitors vaccine coverage and vaccine preventable disease in Australia to highlight important trends and issues across Australia. Dr Beard contributed to a recent paper that looked at the impact of influenza vaccination in young children in Australia.

Dr Beard provides insights on the importance of protecting ourselves, our families and patients against influenza through vaccination.

Why is it important to receive the flu vaccine?

Influenza (sometimes called ‘the flu’) is a respiratory illness that can be much worse than a bad cold. Every year in Australia, hundreds of children get so unwell from influenza they need to be treated in hospital. Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent influenza infection and its complications. It is recommended that you should get the influenza vaccine even if you are healthy.

Each year, the influenza vaccine is recommended for all people aged six-months and over and is free for children aged six months to under five years under the National Immunisation Program.

How does the flu vaccine work?

Once you receive an influenza vaccine, it takes about two weeks for the vaccine to become effective and for you to develop immunity. The vaccines we use for influenza change each year according to the different strains that are circulating. Before the influenza season starts, experts gather information from around the world to work out which influenza viruses are most likely to circulate and the available vaccines in Australia may be changed according to this.

How well the influenza vaccine works can vary among different people and in different years, as it depends on several factors, such as age and health of the person receiving the vaccine and the match between the vaccine strains and those circulating in the community. 

When is the best time to vaccinate?

The best time to get an influenza vaccine is before the influenza season, which usually occurs between June and September. In 2020, increased handwashing, hygiene measures, border closures and social distancing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic helped stop the spread of influenza. However, it is possible there could be a bad influenza season this year as we relax restrictions, so the community must be protected through vaccination.

What is the difference in symptoms between the flu and COVID-19?

COVID-19 and influenza are both respiratory illnesses and present with similar symptoms including fever, runny nose or nasal congestion, sore throat, cough, fatigue, headache, aches and pains, and sometimes nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. One symptom that is much more common with COVID-19 than influenza is loss of taste or smell.

Anytime you or your child experience respiratory symptoms, it is important you take appropriate measures including staying home if unwell, resting and a getting a COVID-19 test.

How long do I need to wait between having the flu vaccine and the COVID-19 vaccine?

Vaccination experts recommend that you wait seven days between getting an influenza vaccine and a COVID-19 vaccine. It does not matter in what order you get the vaccines. When you book in for your influenza vaccination, remember to tell your vaccination provider or clinic if you have received the COVID-19 vaccine (and when you received it). This will help them to plan your appointment.

How will I feel after the vaccine?

You or your child may experience flu-like side-effects after the vaccine, which is a sign that the immune system is responding to the vaccine, which is exactly what’s supposed to happen. There are systems in place to detect any unexpected side effects while a vaccine is being used. AusVaxSafety is one of these systems that collects information about side effects directly from people who have gotten the vaccine and publishes this information every week during influenza season. The TGA and other health authorities and experts also investigate any potential issues detected through these monitoring systems.

What else can I do to help protect me and my family from the flu?

Practising good hygiene (such as covering the nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing) and washing hands before and after touching surfaces and before eating can all help to reduce the chances of getting and passing on the influenza virus. People who are sick or suspect they have influenza should stay home from work, school and social gatherings to prevent close contact with and transmission to other people.

For further information, read the resources available below: