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Should I have the flu vaccine?

This page tells you about having the flu jab if you have cancer. There is information about


The flu vaccination

Flu (influenza) is an infection caused by a virus. Flu is very infectious. You mainly catch it from coughs and sneezes of people who have the virus. When you have flu you feel unwell more quickly than with a cold. Colds tend to develop slowly, starting with a sore throat and runny nose. Flu comes on more quickly and often causes

  • High temperatures (fever)
  • Aching muscles
  • Cough
  • Headache

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 pneumonia or bronchitis. These are serious illnesses which can need hospital treatment.

The main aim of the flu vaccine is to protect people most at risk from flu and complications of flu.

Vaccines work by stimulating the body to make antibodies. These antibodies then recognise and attack the virus next time we come into contact with it. Vaccines tend to only work against one virus. Viruses can adapt and change, and every year a different variety (strain) of the flu virus becomes more dominant. The flu vaccination only works against the strain of flu virus that is most likely to affect us that year. So you will need to have a vaccination every year. The vaccine gives no protection against colds or other viruses.

The flu jab is not a live vaccine so you won’t develop flu from having it.


The flu jab and cancer

Anyone who is more at risk of infection for any reason should have the flu vaccine. Many cancer treatments can affect the immune system, so you are less able to fight infections. It will take you longer to recover from flu if you do get it. You are also more likely to develop complications. So it is probably sensible for anyone with cancer or having cancer treatment to have the flu vaccine. Check with your doctor and nurse to make sure it is suitable and ask them how to get the jab.

Your immunity may be lower when you have cancer if you

Other people who should have the flu vaccine are people

  • Aged over 65 years
  • With a chronic medical condition, such as heart, liver or kidney disease
  • Who have diabetes (needing drug treatment)
  • Who have asthma or another serious lung condition
  • Who have HIV
  • In long term residential care

If you are a carer you may also be able to have a flu jab. It will depend on your particular situation, so you will need to ask your GP about this.


Who shouldn't have the vaccine?

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

How you get the vaccination

It is important to have the flu jab before the 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 need to contact your GP to find out about clinic times.

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

The flu jab is free to people who are at risk. It is just a small injection under the skin (subcutaneously) and protects you against the most common strain of flu for a year.


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)

Other vaccinations

Another vaccine that your doctor may suggest you have is the pneumococcal vaccine. You might hear this 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 at greater risk of infection 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

You can find further information about travel vaccinations in our living with chemotherapy section.

And there is detailed information about fever and infections in our cancer section about coping physically with cancer.

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Updated: 17 April 2013