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5 convenient truths about the flu and the flu vaccine

Blog post | 02 May 2018

Winter is coming… and so is the flu. You probably can't go on social media or enter a workplace tea room without having a conversation about the flu and the flu vaccine. With all that chatter, myths and misconceptions about the flu (a.k.a. influenza A) can be spread faster than the virus itself.

In the interest of setting the record straight, here are 5 bits of good news that challenge some of the more common flu furphies.

1. You can't get the flu from the flu vaccine

The flu vaccine definitely does not give you the flu, nor does it give you a little bit of the (live) influenza virus. All influenza vaccines used in Australia are made from the deactivated 'shell' of the flu virus. Think of it like the body of a car — imagine the shell of a car without the motor, so it doesn't actually run.

There is another kind of flu vaccine, called the live attenuated intranasal vaccine (LAIV), which could explain why some Australians mistakenly believe they're being given a live vaccine. The LAIV is made from weakened flu virus and is sprayed into the nostrils. But it is only available overseas, including in the US.

Some people confuse normal responses to the flu vaccine as symptoms of the flu, such as swelling, redness and pain at the injection site, and fever, tiredness and muscle aches. These side effects are common and can last 1 to 2 days, and they show that the vaccine is triggering an immune response — which is what it's designed to do.

2. You can't get the flu from being cold

Your parents may have warned you about going outside without a coat or going to bed with wet hair, but feeling cold doesn't cause the flu (or the common cold). The only way to catch influenza is to be exposed to the virus, via tiny droplets of mucus that are coughed or sneezed into the air or transmitted through touch.

Cold and flu season happens to coincide with the colder months, though experts aren't sure why. We do know, however, that wintry weather forces people indoors more often — where they're more likely to be in close proximity with infectious people.

3. People with egg allergy can be vaccinated against the flu

The influenza vaccine is grown in eggs. But the traces of egg protein that remain after the vaccine is made are so tiny that the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) says people and children with egg allergy can be safely vaccinated against the flu. The risk of anaphylaxis in response to the influenza vaccine is very low, estimated at 1.35 cases per 1 million doses.

It's also rare for people with egg allergy to experience other adverse effects, such as hives, wheezing, vomiting or abdominal pain after getting the flu injection. If you're still concerned, ask your doctor if you, or your child, can be observed by staff for 30 minutes after receiving the vaccine (versus the recommended 15 minutes for any patient).

4. The flu vaccine is a good idea — even if you've never had the flu before

You might think, 'I've never had the flu and I'm healthy, so I don't need the flu shot', but there is no way of predicting who will catch influenza — or who will become seriously ill from it. The flu can cause hospitalisation and even death; in 2017, there were 1,255 deaths caused by flu in Australia.

Even if a person is not badly affected by the flu, it's pretty inconvenient, causing people and children to miss time from work, school or childcare because they're too sick to attend. Being vaccinated against the flu also helps protect people around you; if you can't catch the flu, then you can't spread the infection. It's important to protect vulnerable people in the community who aren't able to get the shot, such as babies aged less than 6 months and adults with low immunity.

5. A cold is not the flu!

You might feel sick and your nose is running faster than the Amazon River, but the good news is you may not have the flu. Cold and flu symptoms can be very different. Sneezing, for example, is common when you have a cold but not the flu, while it's rare to have a fever with a cold but usual when you have the flu.

Check out more symptoms in our infographic, below.

Cold or flu? - infographic

For more information

  • If you'd like to talk to your GP about the flu or the flu vaccine, the healthdirect Question Builder can help you curate a list of questions to take to your doctor. You can also talk to your local pharmacist, as most are able to administer the flu shot.
  • If you're not sure if you have the flu or are not sure what to do next, use the healthdirect Symptom Checker. You can also call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 to speak with a registered nurse 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  • Keep up to date with current flu trends across Australia here.
  • Learn more about immunisation and find out if you, or anyone in your family, is eligible for a free flu shot by calling the National Immunisation Program info line (1800 671 811) or visiting the Australian Government Department of Health's immunisation page.

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