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Flu vaccine overview

Flu vaccination is available every year on the NHS to help protect adults and children at risk from flu and its complications.

Flu can be unpleasant, but if you're otherwise healthy, it'll usually clear up on its own in about a week.

But flu can be more severe in certain people, such as:

  • anyone aged 65 and over
  • pregnant women
  • children and adults with an underlying health condition (such as long-term heart or respiratory disease)
  • children and adults with weakened immune systems

Anyone in these risk groups is more likely to develop potentially serious complications of flu, such as pneumonia (a lung infection), so it's recommended that they have a flu vaccine every year to help protect them.

Who should get the flu vaccine?

This year the flu vaccine is being offered on the NHS to:

  • adults 65 and over
  • people with certain medical conditions (including children in at-risk groups from 6 months of age)
  • pregnant women
  • people living with someone who's at high risk from coronavirus (on the NHS shielded patient list)
  • children aged 2 and 3 on 31 August 2020
  • children in primary school
  • children in year 7 (secondary school)
  • frontline health or social care workers

Later in the year, the flu vaccine may be given to people aged 50 to 64. More information will be available later in the autumn.

However, if you're aged 50 to 64 and in an at-risk group, you should not delay having your flu vaccine.

Which type of flu vaccine should I have?

There are several types of flu vaccine.

If you're eligible for the flu vaccine on the NHS, you'll be offered one that's most effective for you, depending on your age:

  • children aged 2 to 17 are offered a live vaccine (LAIV) as a nasal spray; the live viruses have been weakened so it cannot give you flu
  • adults aged 18 to 64 are offered an injected inactivated vaccine; there are different types, but none contains live viruses so they cannot give you flu
  • adults aged 65 and over are offered an injected inactivated vaccine; the most common one contains an adjuvant to help your immune system have a stronger response to the vaccine

If your child is aged between 6 months and 2 years old and is in a high-risk group for flu, they'll be offered an injected flu vaccine because the nasal spray is not licensed for children under 2.

Talk to a GP, practice nurse or pharmacist for more information about these vaccines.

Find out more about who should have the flu vaccine.

People aged 65 and over and the flu vaccine

You're eligible for the flu vaccine this year (2020 to 2021) if you'll be aged 65 or over on 31 March 2021. That is, you were born on or before 31 March 1956.

So, if you're currently 64 but will be 65 by 31 March 2021, you do qualify.

Where to get the flu vaccine

You can have your NHS flu vaccine at:

  • your GP surgery
  • a local pharmacy offering the service
  • your midwifery service if they offer it for pregnant women

Some community pharmacies now offer flu vaccination to adults (but not children) at risk from flu, including pregnant women, people aged 65 and over, people with long-term health conditions and carers.

If you have your flu vaccine at a pharmacy, you do not have to inform a GP. It's up to the pharmacist to do that.

How effective is the flu vaccine?

Flu vaccine is the best protection we have against an unpredictable virus that can cause unpleasant illness in children and severe illness and death among at-risk groups, including older people, pregnant women and people with an underlying physical health condition.

Studies have shown that the flu vaccine will help prevent you getting the flu.

It will not stop all flu viruses and the level of protection may vary, so it's not a 100% guarantee that you'll be flu-free.

But if you do get flu after vaccination, it's likely to be milder and shorter-lived than it would otherwise have been.

There's also evidence to suggest that the flu vaccine can reduce your risk of having a stroke.

Over time, protection from the injected flu vaccine gradually decreases and flu strains often change.

New flu vaccines are produced each year, which is why people advised to have the flu vaccine need it every year.

Find out more about how the flu vaccine works.

Flu vaccine side effects

Serious side effects of the injected flu vaccine are very rare. 

You may have a mild high temperature and aching muscles for a couple of days after having the vaccine, and your arm may be a bit sore where you were injected.

Side effects of the nasal spray vaccine can commonly include a runny or blocked nose, a headache, tiredness and some loss of appetite.

Find out more about the side effects of the flu vaccine.

How safe is the flu vaccine?

The flu vaccines used in the national programme have a good safety record.

Flu vaccines that are used in England have been thoroughly tested before they're made available.

When to have a flu vaccine

The best time to have a flu vaccine is in the autumn before flu starts circulating.

But even if it's later, it's always worth getting vaccinated. Ask the GP or pharmacist.

The flu vaccine for 2020 to 2021

Each year, the viruses that are most likely to cause flu are identified in advance and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends which type of flu virus strains to include in the vaccine.

Is there anyone who should not have the flu vaccine?

Most adults can have the injected flu vaccine, but you should avoid it if you have had a serious allergic reaction to a flu vaccine in the past.

Read more about who should not have the flu vaccine.

You can find out more by reading the answers to common questions people have about the flu vaccine.

Page last reviewed: 16 July 2019
Next review due: 16 July 2022