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Should I get the flu vaccine and Covid-19 booster this winter?

As we all prepare for a busy festive season, many will be wondering if and when they should get the flu vaccine or COVID-19 booster this year. Here’s what you need to know, including the answers to your vaccine questions from a leading GP.

By Gemma Lumley | Last updated Dec 2, 2021

Woman having vaccine

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As winter sets in, you can expect the usual colds and the like doing the rounds, but with Covid-19 still prevalent and the NHS anticipating that it may be a bad flu season, it’s important to take extra precautions to keep yourself and your family safe this year.

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Vaccines are the most effective protection against all kinds of life-threatening illnesses, including influenza and Covid-19. Over many decades vaccinations have helped the UK eradicate debilitating diseases such as polio and smallpox, while minimising the effects of others like measles. 

We all know how easily germs can be spread, particularly through winter, especially when you throw in factors like children in nurseries and schools, packed public transport and, of course, the odd Christmas party or two. Increasing protection from illness is vital for everyone as it stops the spread amongst family and friends, in turn helping the NHS to run efficiently. 

So which vaccines should you get this year? And can you get the flu vaccine and Covid-19 booster at the same time? We answer your questions on these vaccines, including questions about teenagers, and whether you should get vaccinated during pregnancy. 

Should I get a flu vaccine this year?

Woman suffering with flu

Boosting your immunity with a winter vaccination is even more critical this year as predictions suggest that we may see a significant rise in people catching flu alongside continuing or increasing Covid-19 cases. 

Cold weather and darker nights mean that virus transmission accelerates at this time of year as we snuggle up and socialise indoors with friends and family. 

Our immunity has also dipped thanks to a decrease in cases of flu last year. Covid-19 restrictions last year slowed the spread of both viruses, and protection from a virus will only increase after a vaccine or once the body has caught it and fought it. This lack of exposure means we are at higher risk from flu this winter.

Who is eligible for a free flu vaccine? 

A flu vaccine is the most effective defence against what can be a nasty winter virus. Those in the population who will struggle the most with a case of flu can get a flu vaccine at no cost to them. 

If you fall into one of the following categories, you are eligible for a free flu vaccine:

  • Children aged 2 or 3 years old (on the 31 August 2021)
  • School-aged children from reception year to Year 11
  • People aged 50+ by 31st March 2022
  • Pregnant women
  • People with health conditions that make them vulnerable to flu, such as asthma or heart conditions
  • Anyone with a BMI of 40+
  • Carers in receipt of carer’s allowance or who care for people who will struggle if you become ill
  • Residents of care homes
  • People who live with those who are immuno-suppressed
  • Frontline health and social care workers should also have a flu jab. It is usually offered by their employer but some staff will be eligible to receive it from their GP or pharmacy

If you’re unsure whether you’re eligible for a free flu vaccine, contact your GP to discuss whether or not they can offer it to you. Your GP can assess you to take into account the risk of flu making any underlying illness you may have worse, as well as your risk of serious illness from flu itself.

Free flu vaccinations  are available at GP surgeries, pharmacies offering that NHS service (find one here), through your midwife if you’re pregnant or in some cases during a routine hospital appointment. 

The flu can be a nasty experience for even the fittest and healthiest of us, and if you’ve previously had it and spent days in bed feeling worse for wear, you would fervently wish to avoid another dose. 

A flu vaccine will start to take effect after 10 to 14 days, and the side effects are generally mild cold-like symptoms. Remember that you may still get flu, there tend to be a few strains of the virus floating around each winter, but crucially it will be a much milder case than if you weren’t vaccinated. 

Who is eligible for a Covid-19 booster?

Chances are you’ve probably had your first two doses of the Covid-19 vaccine, and have that prized vaccination card tucked safely away. Now the NHS is offering a booster vaccine, and it’s essential you receive it if you are eligible, to top up your immunity. 

For those of us who are eligible, the Covid-19 booster vaccination will now be offered three months after our second jabs, with the most vulnerable first in line to receive theirs. 

Here’s who is currency able to get their booster:

  • People aged 40+
  • Care home residents
  • Frontline health and social care workers 
  • People with health conditions that make them vulnerable to severe Covid-19
  • People who live with those who are immune-suppressed 

The booster vaccine is now being extended to all over-18’s, and will be given to in the same order of priority as the initial vaccine rollout.

The Covid-19 booster vaccine will help your body to maintain protection against the virus throughout the critical winter months when we are all inside together more at home, at work and socially. 

The Covid-19 vaccine has worked wonders to create a fortress of protection against the virus. However, immunity starts to decrease over time, so the booster will provide a ‘top-up’ for the people who need protecting the most. 

When you are eligible for the booster vaccine, you should receive an automatic notification from the NHS that it is time to book. However, if you know it has already been three months, and you’ve not heard anything, visit the National Booking Service or call 119 to arrange an appointment. 

Can I have the flu vaccine and Covid-19 booster around the same time?

Many people feel nervous about getting a vaccine, and finding the time can be tricky when you’re busy. So it makes sense to get both the flu and Covid-19 booster ‘over with’ at the same time if this is offered to you. However, most people are likely to be offered separate appointments. 

There’s no need to worry about feeling extra poorly after getting both a flu and COVID-19 vaccine at the same time. The medicines regulator, the MHRA, and the Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England have confirmed that it is safe to do this. 

Where possible, the NHS will try to schedule these appointments together, however if you are offered an appointment for either vaccine you should take it up without delay to ensure you get the protection you need.

Vaccines and pregnancy: can I have the flu or Covid-19 vaccine?

Pregnant woman holding bump

Pregnant women are in the ‘at-risk’ group because their bodies don’t deal as well with infections. Here’s what you need to know about receiving both vaccines while pregnant.

The flu vaccine and pregnancy

Pregnancy is challenging enough without coping with a nasty case of flu, and having the free vaccine is the best way to protect yourself and your baby. Even if you’re blooming and enjoying a healthy pregnancy, you will be offered a free flu vaccine by your GP or midwife or you can ask for it at a pharmacy offering the NHS service. It is safe to have at any point on your journey to becoming a mother. 

Covid-19 vaccinations and pregnancy

Pregnant women are one of the groups most likely to become seriously ill from Covid-19. We now know that Covid-19 vaccinations are entirely safe for mothers-to-be and make a massive difference in the impact of Covid-19 on mum and baby.

What’s the current advice on children and Covid-19 vaccines?

Teenager having vaccine

If you have some not so little ones at home, you’re probably wondering if it’s safe for them to get the Covid-19 vaccine. After all, we know how easily those viruses can spread from person to person once they’ve entered the school gates. Young people aged 12-15 years are now eligible for both doses of the Covid-19 vaccine, and it’s a good idea to involve them in the decision while emphasising the benefits. 

Covid-19 is often a mild illness for young people, but it can still feel horrible. Catching the virus would also mean taking time off school and isolating themselves from their circle of friends which can be disruptive for them. 

Just like the vaccinations offered in early childhood, the Covid-19 vaccine is safe and will protect your child, the rest of the family and their school’s community. 

Children aged 12 to 15 are offered the vaccine in school, but if they missed the vaccination or would prefer a different time slot, booking your child’s vaccination is simple; visit the NHS National Booking Service. There are plenty of appointments available and parents, there to support their children, are accommodated. 

Vaccines: your questions answered by a GP

We recently teamed up with the Department of Health and Social Care to hold an expert Q&A on winter vaccines this year. Dr Farzana Hussain is an NHS GP with 20 years’ experience and mum of two teenagers. She is Clinical Director of a Primary Care Network and won GP of the year in 2019. Here are her answers to your questions on the flu and Covid-19 vaccine. 

I read about a study that said it’s safe to do both jabs at the same time, but it didn’t mention if the study included immunocompromised people or pregnant women, is it safe for them also? - MonetManet

“Immunocompromised people and pregnant women can have flu and COVID-19 vaccinations at the same appointment, same as everyone else. A pregnant woman can have her whooping cough vaccine at the same time too. But you don’t need to try and coordinate to have the vaccines at the same time – it is best to organise an appointment for the earliest slot you are offered one.”

If Pfizer is given for the booster, is there any difference in its efficacy depending on whether the first/second jab given was Pfizer or Astra Zeneca? - Olinguito

“People will be offered either a full dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine or a half dose of the Moderna vaccine as their booster jab. This follows scientific evidence showing that both provide a strong booster response.”

My GP surgery wants to do both at the same time because I have it at home so it makes it easier/quicker for them. I really don't think it's wise because my immune system is pretty much non-existent due to medical reasons and medication. I reacted really badly to the first Covid vaccine, wasn't too bad with the second. Can and should I push the issue and get them done separately? - TellMeItsNotTrue

“It's always YOUR choice of when you want your jabs but if you have a weak immune system it's even more important that you get protected from COVID-19 and flu. Having two separate visits will delay you being protected from one of the viruses, but if you are offered an appointment for either jab you should take it up without delay and get both jabs as soon as you can.”

I had Covid a month ago. Am I better to capitalise on natural immunity and delay the booster? - MakeTeaNotWar

“You can have your COVID-19 booster 28 days after you were first diagnosed with COVID-19 infection. I would advise that you don't rely on natural immunity as studies have shown that the vaccine offers much better levels of protection so have the vaccine and stay protected especially as there are mutations of the virus - hope you are better now!”

Why are children at school only being offered the flu vaccine up to 16yo, no vaccine for Years 12 and 13? - JulesJules

“The vaccination of children is based on the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) who recommended vaccinating children up to the age of 16. The main purpose is to reduce flu spreading, as children catch and spread flu easily and may pass the virus on to others like family members who may be at higher risk from flu. It does also protect the children who receive the vaccine which is why it's particularly important that any child with an underlying health condition has the vaccine.”

Woman after vaccination

Why has immunity reduced if so many groups are encouraged to take up the flu vaccine? What has caused the lowering of immunity? - Asuwere

“As we were in lockdown last winter, we were less exposed to viruses and and the level of flu infections went down.This year we are expecting more flu as we are mixing again so it's important to get protected with the flu vaccine especially if you are at higher risk of getting complications with flu, such as if you are pregnant.”

Will my flu jab protect my breastfed baby too? - namenomnombre

“Women who have had the flu vaccine while pregnant pass some protection on to their babies, which lasts for the first few months of their lives. It’s safe for women who are breastfeeding to have the vaccine but there is no way that the flu vaccine will pass through breast milk to your baby. Although only women who are pregnant or have an underlying health condition are eligible for the free flu vaccine. For more information see this NHS website here.” 

I had my flu vaccine and was offered the Covid booster straight after which I accepted. Was the flu vaccine I had, the same thing as my children have up their nose? Why do children get it nasally and adults by needle? - CinemaPantomime

“The nasal spray vaccine has been found to be most effective in children and is currently only licensed for children aged two to 17 years old. Unlike the adult injectable vaccine, the flu nasal spray is a live but weakened vaccine, which mimics natural infection, whereas the traditional vaccine is inactivated (or killed vaccine). There are some children for whom the nasal spray is not suitable for medical reasons. They are offered an injectable flu vaccine instead.”

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I've only had a flu vaccine in pregnancy. Never had flu and in mid-forties. I'm a key worker and had children at school throughout lockdowns. I don't feel any more at risk than in the past. I'm double vaccinated against Covid. I live a healthy lifestyle and just don't feel like I need a flu jab. What would you say to me to encourage me to have a flu vaccine? - DatingDisastrously

“If you are under 50 and have no health conditions and are not health and care staff, then you do not qualify for a free NHS flu vaccine. But it's still important to practice simple measures this winter to stop you catching or spreading viruses - including washing hands frequently and if you sneeze then do it in a tissue and bin the tissue.”