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What is influenza?

Influenza (also known as ‘flu’) is a highly contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. The main viruses that cause influenza are influenza A and influenza B. Each of these have different strains. It mainly affects the throat and lungs, but can also cause problems with the heart and the rest of the body, especially in elderly people with other health problems.

Flu is a respiratory illness that is more serious than the common cold. Each year, people in NSW die from flu-related illness.

You can catch flu at any time of the year, but activity usually peaks in winter. Although the symptoms of flu and COVID-19 are similiar, flu and COVID-19 are caused by different viruses.

Who is most at risk of getting the flu?

Every year people in certain high risk groups are more likely to be impacted by flu than others.

These groups, who are also eligible for a free flu vaccine include:

  • children from 6 months to under 5 years of age
  • people with serious health conditions (including severe asthma, diabetes, cancer, immune disorders, obesity, kidney, heart, lung or liver disease)
  • pregnant women
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from 6 months of age
  • people who are 65 years of age and over.

It is particularly important for people at increased risk of severe illness from flu to be vaccinated against flu and to seek medical attention early if they develop symptoms.

What are the symptoms?

Flu can produce symptoms of fever, chills, cough, sore throat, tiredness and muscle aches, and sometimes vomiting and diarrhoea. Severe case of flu can result in breathing difficulty and pneumonia. Symptoms generally appear between two to four days after exposure. If you develop these symptoms you should stay at home and avoid close contact with others until your symptoms are gone.

If you have trouble breathing, go to a hospital Emergency Department or call triple zero (000) for an ambulance.

If you need medical advice call your GP, or healthdirect on 1800 022 222

How does flu spread?

Flu is spread by droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes or touches surfaces, such as door handles and lift buttons.

Flu can be spread to someone by an infected person even before their symptoms begin. People with flu are infectious from the day before their symptoms start until 5 to 7 days later. Young children and people with weakened immune systems may be infectious for longer.

Many of the COVID-safe behaviours we have been practicing for the past couple of years are also very effective at stopping the spread of the flu:

Stay at home if you're sick

If you are sick, stay at home and avoid close contact with other people to prevent them from also becoming sick.

Sneeze into your elbow

Sneeze into your elbow instead of your hands or cover your face with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw used tissues in a rubbish bin.

Clean your hands

Wash your hands thoroughly and often. Wash hands for at least 20 seconds, especially after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose, or use an alcohol-based sanitising hand rub.

Will the COVID-19 vaccine protect me from flu?

The COVID-19 vaccine does not protect you against the flu, you should still have your annual flu shot.The flu shot is your best protection against severe flu.

The flu vaccine will not protect you from COVID-19. However, it will protect you against flu and help reduce the severity and spread of flu this winter.

Staying up to date with your vaccinations is one simple step you can take to protect yourself against flu and COVID-19 this winter.

Is there a waiting period between a COVID-19 vaccine and a flu vaccine?

All COVID-19 vaccines can be administered on the same day as a flu vaccine. Ask your vaccination provider about this if you are also due for your COVID-19 booster.

Does the flu vaccine work?

Vaccination (or immunisation) means becoming protected from a disease as a result of receiving a vaccine.

When you are vaccinated, a tiny part of a disease or germ (that is weak or dead and cannot infect you with the real disease) enters your body (usually either through injection or orally) and triggers your body's defence system to create antibodies. The antibodies remember what these germs look like and can kill this type of germ if you are exposed to it in the future.

Because the flu vaccine doesn't contain a whole flu virus it can't give you flu, nor can you pass on the disease because of the vaccination.

The flu vaccine has been shown to be effective in preventing illness in about 50-60% of healthy adults under the age of 65 years. This can vary by year, the person’s age and underlying medical conditions. It takes about 2 weeks for the vaccine to become effective and protect the individual against flu. By vaccinating yourself against flu, you are not only protecting yourself, but everyone around you.

Why is vaccination important?

Vaccination prevents people from becoming infected with diseases. This means there is less disease circulating in the community which not only protects you, but can help protect those around you who are not able to be vaccinated, such as infants under 6 months of age.

Why is it necessary to receive a flu vaccine each year?

Each year the strains of the influenza virus which are predicted to affect Australians are reviewed and the available vaccines may be changed according to the strains. The protection provided by flu vaccines decreases after a few months so children and adults need to be re-vaccinated each year before winter.

Every year a new seasonal flu vaccine is developed. It protects against the four types of flu that are expected to be the most common that flu season (winter). The seasonal flu vaccine is now available in Australia. All flu vaccines available in Australia are quadrivalent as they contain 4 influenza virus strains – 2 influenza A subtypes and 2 influenza B lineages.

Where can I be vaccinated against flu?

Vaccinations are available from your general practitioner, some local pharmacies or Aboriginal Medical Service. We recommend you call ahead to make sure your practice is vaccinating on the day you want to visit.

Pharmacists can administer flu vaccines to children aged 10 and over. Parents with children aged under 10 should see their GP.

Some pharmacies will have stock of the free flu vaccine for people aged 65 years and over. Whilst this vaccine is free, the pharmacist may charge an administration fee. This fee should be discussed with the pharmacist before vaccination.

If you are not able to access your GP, local pharmacy or AMS and wish to be vaccinated, contact your local public health unit for advice.

Hospitals and other health services (eg renal dialysis clinics or antenatal clinics) may also offer flu vaccination to in-patients and out-patients that are more likely to become really sick with flu.

Is the flu vaccine free?

The following groups are at higher risk of complications from flu are eligible for a free flu vaccine:

  • children from 6 months to under 5 years of age
  • people with serious health conditions (including severe asthma, diabetes, cancer, immune disorders, obesity, kidney, heart, lung or liver disease)
  • pregnant women
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from 6 months of age
  • people who are 65 years of age and over.

Please note: some providers may charge an administration or consultation fee. Ask your GP or pharmacist if this applies to you.

If you are not eligible for a free flu vaccine, your GP or pharmacist will charge you a small fee. The fee may vary between providers.

Everyone aged 6 months and older is recommended to get a flu vaccine.

The NSW Health Immunisation Unit has more information about the seasonal flu vaccine and groups eligible for free vaccine.

What should I do if I feel sick?

If you are having trouble breathing, go to a hospital Emergency Department or call triple zero (000) for an ambulance.

If you are more likely to become really sick from flu, you should speak to your doctor as soon as you start to feel sick. There is medication that can reduce the effects and duration of flu but it works best if started early.

If you are not in a high-risk group, talk to your doctor if you feel moderately or very unwell. If you are only mildly unwell, you can probably take care of yourself at home.

If you need medical advice, call your GP or healthdirect on 1800 022 222.

How can I prevent getting the flu?

Getting vaccinated against flu greatly reduces the chance that you will be infected by a flu virus.

Many of the COVID-safe behaviours we have been practicing for the past couple of years are also very effective at stopping the spread of the flu:

Stay at home if you're sick

If you are sick, stay at home and avoid close contact with other people to prevent them from also becoming sick.

Sneeze into your elbow

Sneeze into your elbow instead of your hands or cover your face with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw used tissues in a rubbish bin.

Clean your hands

Wash your hands thoroughly and often. Wash hands for at least 20 seconds, especially after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose, or use an alcohol-based sanitising hand rub.

Practice good hygiene

Hand hygiene

  • Ensure soap and disposable towels are near sinks for hand washing.
  • Consider having dispensers of alcohol-based hand cleanser in the home.

Tissues

  • Have a supply of disposable tissues available.

Crockery and other eating utensils

  • Crockery and other eating utensils used by someone sick with flu should not be shared with other members of the household, until washed.
  • Household gloves should be worn by other members of the household if touching the sick person's used crockery or utensils.
  • Used crockery and utensils should be washed as usual either in a dishwasher or by hand with warm water and detergent. Once washed, they may be used by others.

Laundry - Towels, bedding and clothing

  • Towels, bedding and clothing used by a person sick with flu should not be shared. These may be washed as usual in a washing machine with warm water and detergent.
  • Household gloves should be worn by other members of your household when they are touching linen and clothing used by someone sick with flu.
  • To avoid spreading germs, soiled laundry should not be shaken.
  • After laundry has been washed and cleaned it may be used by others.

Cleaning the house

  • Commonly touched surfaces such as taps, doorknobs, tables, kettle handles and the fridge door handle should be cleaned frequently with normal household detergent.
  • Clean the bathroom and toilet regularly.

The home should be kept well ventilated with doors and/or windows open during the day, if possible and if safe to do so.

Hand washing and cough etiquette posters are available.

Get vaccinated

The NSW Health Immunisation Unit has more information about the seasonal flu vaccine.

Avoid close contact with sick people

If you are sick with flu, you should avoid close contact with other people to prevent them from also becoming sick. The opposite advice also applies - avoid close contact with sick people to avoid catching the flu yourself.

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Can the flu vaccine be given to children aged from 6 months to less than 5 years of age at the same time as other immunisation program vaccines?

Yes. All flu vaccines can be administered at the same time as other childhood recommended vaccines.

There is a small increased risk of fever following administration of pneumococcal and influenza vaccines at the same time. Separating the doses by 3 days can be considered to reduce this risk.

I had the flu vaccine while I was pregnant, does my baby still need the vaccine?

All pregnant women are recommended to have the flu vaccine during their pregnancy. Some of the antibodies that your body makes in response to the vaccine pass to your baby during your pregnancy, and this helps protect your baby from influenza in the crucial first few months of life before they can receive the vaccine themselves.

Unfortunately, this protection does not last beyond six months of age. This is why the flu vaccine is recommended and now funded for all children from six months of age.

What if I am breastfeeding, does that mean my baby doesn’t need the vaccine from six months?

Breastfeeding doesn’t provide enough antibodies to your baby’s system to protect them against influenza after 6 months of age, so it’s important to protect them with a free flu vaccine from 6 months of age.

Can people with an egg allergy receive the flu vaccine?

Yes, persons with egg allergy, including anaphylaxis, can be safely vaccinated with influenza vaccines. Persons with a history of egg allergy (non-anaphylaxis) can receive an age-appropriate full dose of vaccine in any immunisation setting. Persons with a history of anaphylaxis to egg should be vaccinated in medical facilities with staff experienced in recognising and treating anaphylaxis.

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Current as at: Thursday 5 May 2022
Contact page owner: Communicable Diseases