Should you get a flu jab?

We asked Imperial virologist Professor Wendy Barclay for some words of wisdom on who should be getting the seasonal flu vaccine.

Flu season is now in full swing, confining many to their beds for several days while others escape with little more than a mild sniffle.

Each year health agencies around the world work to produce vaccines for the current strains of seasonal flu in circulation, giving people the best shot at protecting themselves against the flu doing the rounds.

“Remember that most flu occurs over Christmas and New Year and the last thing you want is to be in bed feeling sick at that time of year,” says Professor Wendy Barclay , Action Medical Research Chair in Virology in Imperial’s Department of Medicine, offering some words of wisdom on the issue.

“If you’re a person at risk from severe influenza, then absolutely it is worth getting a flu shot,” explains Professor Barclay, highlighting that among vulnerable groups, the virus poses a greater threat and can lead to serious complications.

The current advice from NHS England recommends the flu jab for pregnant women, people aged 65 or older, young children and those with certain medical conditions, such as respiratory conditions like asthma, or conditions that weaken their immune systems.

For most people the signs of infection are clear: coughing, sneezing, aching and feeling generally rotten, often being confined to bed for days until the body’s defences can counter the virus.

But some people can be contagious before they begin to show symptoms of flu, and others may experience no symptoms at all - all the while spreading the virus to those they meet.

“If you are a healthcare worker, a doctor, a nurse, or anyone looking after someone who is vulnerable, you really should get your flu vaccine because it’s not just about you, it’s about the vulnerable person.”

“You might go to work and be breathing out infectious virus [on people] and their immune system might not be as good as yours…so it’s really important for people caring for vulnerable people that they try to minimise that possibility.”

And what about those who may not necessarily be at high risk and don’t work with vulnerable people - is it worth getting a flu jab?

“If you are a healthy adult, I’d still recommend it’s worth doing,” explains Professor Barclay: “There’s no harm in doing it. You’ll have a sore arm and may feel tired for a day or two while your immune system ramps up.”

However, getting the flu vaccine is no guarantee that you won’t get the flu, especially in the case of a mismatch - where the strain that ends up infecting people is not one covered by this year’s vaccine, or your immune system fails to make the right antibodies, which latch onto the virus and target it for destruction by the body’s immune cells.

Professor Barclay adds: “It’s possible the antibodies you make won’t protect you against the circulating flu, but at least you’ve done your best and used every opportunity to protect yourself.” Photos and graphics subject to third party copyright used with permission or Imperial College London.

Ryan O’Hare
Communications and Public Affairs