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Best defence

If you’re concerned about the influenza virus affecting your health, then getting a flu shot at the right time offers the best chance of making it through the flu season unscathed.


If you made it through last winter without developing a fever accompanied by body aches, blocked sinuses and a hacking cough, then congratulations – you managed to dodge a particularly nasty flu season.

According to UNSW’s School of Public Health and Community Medicine, the 2017 flu season was one of Australia’s worst, with older people aged over 80 experiencing the highest rate of infection.

While unwelcome, for some people a dose of the flu has far worse ramifications than a few days laid up in bed. For many older people the flu can end up being a matter of life or death.

Once the influenza virus wears down your immunity, you’re more likely to acquire a serious bacterial infection such as pneumonia. It’s for this reason that the National Immunisation Program offers free flu vaccines to people over 65, whose immune systems often struggle with new flu strains.

“Anyone can opt to get a flu shot, but older people aged over 65 and people with other health issues such as asthma, diabetes and heart disease should definitely get a flu shot,” says Dr Mary-Anne Lancaster, a rural women’s GP with the Royal Flying Doctor Service in Victoria.


Timing is everything

If you got a flu shot last year, don’t think that you can skip it this year. Receiving the flu vaccine each year is crucial, as immunity wanes over time and the strain of flu virus that will be circulating this year will be different to previous years.

Getting a flu shot each year gives you the best chance of beating the flu, but it’s wise to think about timing your flu jab with precision. While you may be tempted to get in early, scheduling your annual flu shot too early can be counterproductive to your mission of staying flu-free.

With the flu vaccine generally lasting for up to four months, and the flu season tending to range from June to August, Dr Lancaster advises patients to receive a flu jab in May in order to have maximum coverage during the peak flu season. Getting a flu shot in January or February means that by winter, the vaccine’s efficacy has waned and isn’t as strong when you need it the most.


Stay vigilant

Even though the flu shot offers some protection, Dr Lancaster believes it’s wise to avoid complacency during flu season. “Some patients get a false sense of security and let their guard down after receiving the flu vaccine, but you still need to take precautions,” says Dr Lancaster, who notes that even people who get the flu shot can still be infected with the flu virus (although the symptoms and duration may be lessened in patients who have been immunised).    

Dr Lancaster advises older people to avoid getting run down and sidestep people who are infected with the flu. So if you’re feeling under the weather during flu season, it’s best to take a break from activities such as volunteering, and avoid visiting vulnerable and immunocompromised people in places such as hospitals and aged care facilities.

Dr Lancaster admits it’s difficult to avoid exposure to the flu virus, with even a shopping centre trip opening up the possibility of being infected by someone coughing near you. “The only way to completely avoid the flu is to live on a desert island,” says Dr Lancaster, adding that “…the flu shot isn’t foolproof, but it’s the best we’ve got.”

So stay vigilant, get immunised just before flu season and hopefully you’ll stay fighting fit this winter.