Flu Vaccination Overview

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.

  • you're the main carer for an elderly or disabled person whose welfare may be at risk if you get ill
  • you live with someone who's at high risk of coronavirus (on the NHS shielded patient list)
  • your child is in an at-risk group and is aged 6 months or older

Some pharmacies also offer free NHS flu vaccination to adults and social care workers in the categories listed above. They do not offer this service for children. 

You should also have the flu vaccine if you're a healthcare or social care worker directly involved in patient care.

You may also be able to have the flu vaccine at the GP surgery or a local pharmacy offering the service if you're a frontline health or social care worker employed by a:

  • registered residential care or nursing home
  • registered homecare organisation
  • hospice

You can also have the flu vaccine if you provide health or social care through Direct Payments (personal budgets) or Personal Health Budgets (such as Personal Assistants) or both.

Find out more about who should have the flu vaccine.

Flu vaccine FAQs

When am I most at risk from flu?

Flu circulates every winter and generally peaks in December and January. This means many people get ill around the same time.

But it's impossible to predict how many cases of flu there will be each year or exactly when it will peak.

Does everyone need a flu vaccine?

No, just people who are at particular risk of problems if they catch flu.

Ask a GP about having an NHS flu vaccine if:

  • you're aged 65 or over
  • you're pregnant
  • you have a serious medical condition
  • you live in a residential or nursing home

Why are certain groups targeted for the flu vaccine?

Complications such as bronchitis and pneumonia are more common in people with other conditions, especially if they're also older.

In long-stay residential homes, vaccination helps prevent the rapid spread of flu among residents.

Why are people who live with those on the NHS shielded patient list being offered a flu vaccine?

The NHS wants to keep those who are most vulnerable to COVID-19 well this winter and does not want them to catch flu.

If you live with someone who's on the NHS shielded patient list, or you expect to be with them on most days over winter, then you should ask for a free flu vaccine.

How long will the flu vaccine protect me for?

The flu vaccine will provide protection for you for the upcoming flu season. People eligible for flu vaccination should have the vaccine each year.

Can I have the flu vaccine while I'm taking antibiotics?

Yes, it's fine to have the flu vaccine while you're taking a course of antibiotics, provided you're not ill with a high temperature.

How long does the flu vaccine take to become effective?

It takes between 10 and 14 days for your immune system to respond fully after you have had the flu vaccine.

If I had the flu vaccine last year, do I need it again now?

Yes. The viruses that cause flu can change every year, which means the flu (and the vaccine) this winter may be different from last winter.

Can the flu vaccine cause flu?

No. The vaccine does not contain any live viruses, so it cannot cause flu.

You may get a slight temperature and aching muscles for a couple of days afterwards, and your arm may feel a bit sore where you had the injection.

Other reactions are rare, and flu vaccines have a good safety record.

For children, the nasal spray vaccine cannot cause flu because the viruses in it have been weakened to prevent this happening.

When is the best time to get my 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.

Is there anyone who cannot have the flu vaccine?

Yes. You should not have the flu vaccine if you have ever had an allergic reaction to a flu vaccine or one of its ingredients. This happens very rarely.

You also need to take precautions if you have an egg allergy.

Find out who should not have the flu vaccine.

Can I get the flu vaccine privately?

Adults who are not eligible for a flu vaccine on the NHS can pay for a flu vaccine privately.

The flu vaccine may be available from pharmacies or in supermarkets.

It's provided on a private patient basis and you have to pay. The vaccine costs up to £20.

Can I have a flu vaccine if I'm breastfeeding?

Yes. The vaccine poses no risk to a breastfeeding mother or her baby, or to pregnant women.

Is it OK to have the flu vaccine during pregnancy?

Yes. In fact, it's important to get the flu vaccine if you're pregnant.

It's safe to have at any stage of pregnancy, including in the first trimester and right up to the expected due date.

It helps protect the mother-to-be and newborn baby from catching flu.

Find out more about the flu vaccine in pregnancy.

NHS Website to know more on Flu vaccinations.

Back to Flu Vaccinations Page