Flu facts and why to get vaccinated

BY Dr Max Pemberton

25th Sep 2023 Health

3 min read

Flu facts and why to get vaccinated
Dr Max warns that the flu can be very serious and that vaccines are advised to protect yourself and those around you from the debilitating infection
At first I wasn’t sure what was happening. I felt achy but shrugged it off as the result of an overzealous session at the gym. A few hours later though, a headache came on. It made me wince with pain. I dismissed it—it couldn’t be flu. After all, I’d already had my jab, as I do every year. I went to bed, not feeling right but sure it would pass with an early night. A few hours later though, I woke up drenched in sweat, shivering. I felt awful. Until you’ve had flu, it’s hard to describe quite how dreadful and debilitating it is.

Flu deaths

Over the years of working in hospitals I’ve seen older people die from flu—something which at the time shocked and surprised me, but as I lay there I could finally understand how this virus could kill you. Of course, I knew it was unlikely that I’d die, but I could easily imagine that, if you were older, frail or had other health complications then this could be catastrophic.
"If you are older, frail or had other health complications then flu could be catastrophic"
I was uncontrollably hot yet my whole body shook. My head pounded constantly and my skin could hardly bear to have the sheets cover me as it was so sensitive. I drifted in and out of sleep, my whole body in pain. I had no appetite at all. All this went on for about a week, and I didn’t feel fully recovered for a further week.

The difference between flu and a cold

Older man in bed sick with flu
Doctors often say that the difference between a cold and flu is that someone with a cold is sitting up watching TV telling you how awful they feel. Someone with flu can’t even raise their head off the pillow. One of the infuriating things when you’ve had proper flu is people with a heavy cold saying they’ve “got a touch of flu”. Little do they know.
And I think this is part of the problem—we tend to lump colds and general winter illnesses in with the flu, and this makes us complacent until we’ve actually had it ourselves and can then appreciate that flu is in another league to any other winter infection you’re likely to catch.

The flu jab

This is why I am such a passionate advocate for the flu jab and tell everyone I know to have it. Yes, I know, I had the flu jab last year and still got flu. So why am I still such a fan?
"Scientists spend a long time trying to predict which strain will dominate"
The flu virus is incredibly clever and easily mutates, meaning that the vaccine is not always effective. There are also different strains, which tend to affect different age groups. The strains can change from one year to the next, so scientists spend a long time trying to predict which strain will dominate, but this is difficult. As a result, the vaccine can’t protect against every case of flu every year.

Protecting yourself and your loved ones

An older man having a plaster put on his arm after being vaccinated for flu
It is estimated that the vaccine typically reduces the rate of infection by about 50 per cent in adults. Yes, I was unlucky and fell into the 50 per cent of people for whom it didn’t work. But half the time it does work and having experienced the horrors of flu, I’d do anything to ensure that me and my loved ones and patients have as high a chance of avoiding it as possible. And, this is an important point, it’s not just you that you are protecting when you get the flu jab, you’re also protecting those around you because it means you’re much less likely to pass it on.
"We could have a wave of flu cases this winter and the flu vaccine can save lives"
I worry that now we’ve all been having our COVID-19 jabs, we’ve got rather bored of having vaccinations—a term called “vaccine fatigue”. If we aren’t mindful of this, we could have a wave of flu cases this winter. As we approach autumn, for me there’s no debate. It’s simple: the flu vaccine saves lives and I believe it’s all our duty to get it.
Banner credit: Martin Barraud

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