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Flu vaccine 2021: what you need to know

Find out if you can get a free vaccination, where to book a private appointment, and whether you can get a flu jab with your Covid booster

Health experts are urging people to get their flu vaccine booked in as soon as possible, amid concerns about a rise in flu cases on top of the continued impact of Covid cases this winter.

The NHS says that more people are likely to get the flu this winter as restrictions on socialising over the last year or so mean that fewer people have built up natural immunity.

This is particularly important because if you get flu and Covid at the same time, you're more likely to be very unwell. People who are at higher risk from Covid are also at greater risk of complications from the flu, which can be fatal.

More broadly, getting vaccinated also helps to protect vulnerable people and the NHS.

Here, we explain who is eligible for a free vaccine and how to book a flu vaccine (and where to get it cheapest) if you don't qualify for a free one.

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Who is eligible for a free flu vaccination?

It's best to get vaccinated against flu in autumn or early winter, before flu starts spreading too widely.

If you are eligible, you should be contacted by the NHS inviting you to get a free flu vaccine. If you haven't heard anything yet, you can check in with your GP.

You are eligible for a free flu vaccination if any one of the following applies to you:

  • you will be aged 50 or over by 31 March 2022
  • you have certain long-term health conditions, including respiratory conditions such as asthma
  • you're pregnant
  • you live in a residential care home
  • you receive carer's allowance, or you're the main carer for an older or disabled person who may be at risk if you get sick
  • you live with someone who is more likely to get infections (such as someone who has HIV, has had a transplant or is having certain cancer, lupus, or rheumatoid arthritis treatments)
  • you are a frontline health or social care worker

Primary age school children, and first year secondary school children will get a nasal spray vaccine or injection at school. Babies under two years old can get a free vaccine at the GP.

Eligibility is broadly the same across the UK, but in Scotland there is additional eligibility for school and nursery teachers and support staff.

For full details on who is eligible, visit the NHS flu guide.

Check if you're eligible via an employer scheme

If you are currently working, it's worth checking to see if your employer offers a free flu vaccine as part of its employee benefits package. Some do this, usually in the form of a voucher you can redeem at a participating pharmacy.

Where to get a flu vaccination if you're not eligible for a free one and how much it costs

If you're not eligible for a free NHS flu vaccination, you can pay privately for an appointment at a pharmacy. The cost of a private flu jabs ranges from about £8 to about £20.

It tends to be cheaper at supermarket pharmacies - the cheapest we've found are at Asda (£8) and Tesco (£9). At Boots, Lloyd's and Well pharmacy, it's around £14.50-£14.99.

At the time of writing, most high street pharmacies are taking bookings for paid flu jabs for appointments in October.

You can also use the NHS Patient Access app to check for available private appointments near you.

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Flu vaccine safety and side effects

Flu vaccines are very safe, and a flu vaccination programme is run every year in the UK. You can find out more in the UK government guide to the flu vaccine.

Most side effects are mild and only last for a day or two. They're similar to side effects from the Covid vaccine, and include:

  • sore arm at injection site
  • muscle aches
  • slightly raised temperature

The NHS recommends taking a painkiller as soon as you've been jabbed and to move your arm around to mitigate the above side effects.

None of the flu vaccines contain live viruses; they cannot give you the flu. But you may get fever symptoms as above as your immune system mounts a response to the vaccine.

If you do experience any unusual symptoms, you can talk to your GP and report them if needed via the MHRA Yellow Card scheme.

Is it safe to get a flu jab and Covid booster at the same time?

Some people might be eligible for both the flu and Covid booster vaccines. While the NHS says it's likely you'll be offered these separately, you may also be offered both at once.

A clinical trial has shown that it's safe to get both at the same appointment, with no negative impact on the immune response.

Some people reported more side-effects from having both jabs, but these were still mild and resolved within a few days.

Will the flu vaccination protect me from Covid?

No, the vaccine only provides a measure of protection against the main strains of seasonal flu.

The Covid vaccines provide the best possible protection against Covid.

But according to research cited by the NHS, if you get flu and coronavirus at the same time, you're more likely to feel more ill.

And people vulnerable to COVID-19 are also at risk of complications from flu. So it's particularly important for those most at-risk to get vaccinated against flu.

Flu vs Covid - how to tell the difference

Covid shares some overlapping symptoms with the common cold and seasonal flu.

In fact, it's getting harder to distinguish between them as Covid symptoms evolve with new strains and in vaccinated people.

For people who have had both Covid vaccines, it's looking like the most common symptoms of Covid quite closely mimic a flu or cold.

Data from the ZOE Covid symptom study show that loss of smell or loss of taste is still one of the strongest predictors for a positive Covid test.

If in doubt, it's best to book a Coronavirus test and isolate until you get the results.