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Flu vaccine and cancer treatment

Cancer or its treatment can lower your resistance to infection and make you more likely to catch flu. Find out more about the flu vaccine.

Cancer and immunity

Cancer or its treatment can lower your resistance to infection. Doctors call this immunosuppression or being immunocompromised. If you have cancer or are having cancer treatment and have a low resistance to infection you may be more at risk of catching flu (influenza). 

If you do get flu and have low immunity you are more likely to become very ill and get complications such as chest infections (pneumonia).

The flu vaccination

Flu (influenza) is an infection caused by a virus. It is very infectious. You mainly catch it from coughs and sneezes of people who have the virus. The symptoms of flu often come on very quickly and include: 

  • a high temperature (fever)
  • aching muscles
  • a cough
  • headaches

Anyone who has flu feels pretty awful but most healthy people recover within a few days, as their immune system gets rid of the virus. Occasionally people develop complications, such as severe chest infections. These are serious illnesses which can need hospital treatment. A small number of people die due to the complications.

The flu vaccination makes it less likely that you will catch flu. If you have had the vaccine and do get flu you are likely to recover more quickly and are less likely to get complications.

You have the vaccination as a small injection under the skin. 

The flu virus changes and so each year you need to have the injection to protect against the most common type of flu that year.

Who should have the flu jab

People with types of cancer that affect the bone marrow should have the flu jab. These include:

  • leukaemia
  • myeloma
  • lymphoma

Some cancer treatments lower immunity and lower your resistance to flu. These include:

  • chemotherapy
  • biological therapy
  • radiotherapy
  • long term steroids
  • removal of the spleen

If you have low immunity due to cancer or its treatment, your doctor will usually discuss the flu vaccine with you. They will suggest that you have it. If you think you might have low immunity, check with your doctor or nurse and ask them if you need the jab.

After cancer treatment your resistance to infection might be low for some months or years.

Is the vaccine safe

The flu jab doesn't contain live flu virus so you won’t develop flu from having it. It is safe to have it while you are having cancer treatment.

But you shouldn’t have the flu vaccine if you:

  • are allergic to egg (the vaccine is made from hen’s eggs)
  • have had a reaction to a vaccine before

Side effects of the flu vaccine

The vaccine doesn’t usually cause many side effects. But you may have:

  • slight soreness around the injection site
  • a slight fever and aching joints (which doesn’t lead to flu)

How you get the flu jab

It's important to have the vaccination before the flu virus starts to circulate in the population. This is most likely to happen during the winter months. So vaccination clinics usually start running in late September and continue through to mid November. You can contact your GP to find out about clinic times.

If you are in the middle of cancer drug treatment, you should talk to your cancer specialist about the best time to have the vaccination. Your immune system is weaker when you are having some cancer drug treatments, which means the vaccine may not work quite so well. Your specialist will tell you when it is best to have the injection to get the greatest chance of protection from flu.

The flu jab is free to people who are at increased risk of catching flu.

Other vaccinations

Your doctor might suggest that you have the pneumococcal vaccine if your immunity is low. And if you're travelling, you might need to have other vaccinations.

Pneumococcal vaccine

The pneumococcal vaccine is also called the pneumo jab. The pneumococcal virus causes pneumonia, meningitis and septicaemia. Although these are not common infections, they can be very serious. So people who have low immunity should also have this vaccine.

Things to know about the pneumococcal vaccine:

  • most people only need to have it once – it protects you for life
  • if you’ve had your spleen removed (a splenectomy) you may need to have the jab repeated after 3 to 5 years – check with your doctor
  • you should have the vaccine at least 2 weeks before starting any treatment that affects your immune system (such as chemotherapy)
  • wait at least 3 months after cancer treatment finishes before having the pneumo jab
  • it is available all year round

Travel vaccinations

Last reviewed: 
08 Jul 2014
  • Electronic Medicines Compendium

    Accessed 2015

  • Immunisation Collection

    Public Health England, 2013

  • Influenza vaccines in immunosuppressed adults with cancer

    N Eliakim-Raz and others

    Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2013

  • The national flu immunisation programme 2014/15 

    Department of Health and Public Health England, 2014

Information and help

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