Influenza vaccine

Also called the flu vaccine

Easy-to-read medicine information about the flu vaccine – what it is, when it is given and possible side effects.

Key points

  1. Vaccination is your best protection against the flu. Even if you still get the flu after vaccination, your symptoms are less likely to be severe.
  2. Get vaccinated to stop the spread of the flu around your community. Even if you don't feel sick, you could still be infected with the flu virus and pass it on to others.
  3. The flu vaccine is recommended and FREE for people who are most likely to get very sick, be hospitalised or even die if they catch the flu. 
  4. Having the flu vaccine every year can keep older people healthy and active for longer.
  5. Getting the flu vaccine during pregnancy helps protect the mother and her baby against the flu.
Influenza vaccine for 2020
From Monday 27 April the flu vaccine is available for the general public who are aged 3 years or older.

People eligible for FREE flu vaccine for 2020 are:
  • pregnant women (any trimester)
  • people aged 65 and over
  • people under 65 years of age with certain chronic conditions, such as chronic heart disease, chronic liver disease, diabetes, cancer, asthma and COPD
  • children aged 4 years or under who have been hospitalised for respiratory illness or have a history of significant respiratory illness, including children aged 6–59 months (under 5 years) who were hospitalised with measles.
For a complete list of who is eligible, see eligibility criteria.

Note: Influenza vaccine does not protect against COVID-19. However, it will help prevent the flu, a serious illness that causes hundreds of deaths each winter in New Zealand. 

What is the flu vaccine?

The influenza vaccine (also called the flu vaccine) is used to prevent infection caused by the influenza (flu) virus. The flu can cause serious illness, especially in young children, the elderly and people with chronic health problems, but anyone can become seriously ill from the flu virus. Even if you are not feeling sick, you could still be infected with the flu virus and pass it on to others. Read more about influenza.

Vaccination is the best way to prevent infection and reduce the seriousness of illness if you become infected. It will greatly improve your chances of not getting the flu, but it does not give 100% protection.

Being vaccinated causes your body to produce antibodies against the flu virus. This means your body can respond faster and more effectively to the flu. By first coming across a non-infectious version of the virus in the vaccine, it learns to recognise it. When it comes across it again, your body can react much faster and in a more effective way.

Even if you get the flu after being vaccinated, you usually get a mild form of it and recover faster, and are less likely to have serious complications.

Get vaccinated every year

You need to get the flu vaccine every year because protection from the previous vaccination becomes less effective over time. Also, each year the flu vaccine is developed to match the different strains of flu virus you are likely to encounter. 

Read more about vaccination against influenza

When is the flu vaccine given?

It is possible to come into contact with flu viruses all year round, but the chance of the flu virus circulating in the community is highest during winter. For most people, the best time to be vaccinated against influenza is just before the start of the winter season – in New Zealand, this is between April and June. It takes 2 weeks after vaccination for the vaccine to be fully effective. You may still get the flu in this time if you come into contact with the virus, so get it done early in time for winter.

Pregnant women

If you become pregnant after winter and have not received the current flu vaccine, it is recommended that you have it by 31 December.

Who should get the flu vaccine?

Any one over the age of 6 months can have the flu vaccine. The flu vaccine is free for people who are considered to be at greater risk of complications from the flu:

  • pregnant women (any trimester)
  • people aged 65 years and over
  • people under 65 years of age with with certain chronic conditions, such as chronic heart disease, chronic liver disease, diabetes, cancer, asthma and COPD
  • children aged 4 years or under who have been hospitalised for respiratory illness or have a history of significant respiratory illness, including children aged 6–59 months (under 5 years) who were hospitalised with measles.

Check with your doctor if you are uncertain about whether you qualify for a free flu vaccine. Read more about the eligibility criteria.

The vaccination is also recommended (although may not be free) if you are in close contact with people with weakened immune systems, as these people may be less able to fight off the flu or who are at high risk of complications from it. Front-line healthcare workers usually have the vaccine funded by their employer.

Who should not get the flu vaccine?

If you have had a severe allergic reaction following the flu vaccine in the past, let your doctor know before having another flu vaccination. Also, if you have a fever your doctor may recommend postponing the vaccination until you are well.

The flu vaccine may not be suitable or may need to be delayed for people receiving any of the following 4 cancer treatments:

  • atezolizumab (TECENTRIQ®)
  • ipilimumab (YERVOY®)
  • nivolumab (OPDIVO®)
  • pembrolizumab (KEYTRUDA®).

These are the only 4 cancer treatments in New Zealand that require influenza vaccination to be delayed. Your healthcare professional needs to contact your oncologist or phone 0800 IMMUNE (0800 466 863) for current advice about the influenza vaccination for these people BEFORE administering the vaccine.

Dose

The vaccine is given by injection into a muscle, such as the muscle on your upper arm. If you have a condition that makes you bleed more easily than normal, it may be given as an injection underneath your skin. Babies and toddlers are given the injection on the side of their thigh.

Adults and children 9 years and older: Only one dose of the vaccine is required to achieve protection for the season.

Children aged between 6 months and under 9 years: Two doses of the vaccine are required, with the second dose given at least 4 weeks after the first. Children in this age group who have received an influenza vaccine at any time in the past require only one dose.

What about side effects?

Like all medicines, the flu vaccine can cause side effects, although not everyone gets them. Often side effects improve as your body gets used to the new medicine.

Side effects What should I do?
  • Pain, swelling, or redness around the injection site 
  • This is quite common after having the vaccination.
  • It usually starts a few hours after getting the injection and settles within a few days.
  • Place a cold, wet cloth or ice pack where the injection was given. Leave it on for a short time. 
  • Do not rub the injection site.
  • Tell your doctor if troublesome.
  • Read more: After your immunisation
  • Fever
  • This is quite common for the first 1 or 2 days after receiving the injection and usually settles within a few days.
  • Dress lightly, with a single layer of clothing.
  • Do not wrap your child in a blanket.
  • Keep the room cool and use a fan if you have one.
  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • The routine use of paracetamol is not recommended following vaccinations, but may be used if your child is miserable or distressed.
  • Tell your doctor if the fever persists.
  • Read more: After your immunisation
  • Feeling unwell, tired or weak
  • Loss of appetite
  • Muscle ache
  • Headache
  • These are quite common for the first 1 or 2 days after receiving the injection.
  • It usually settles within a few days.
  • Rest and drink plenty of fluids.
  • The routine use of paracetamol is not recommended following vaccinations, but may be used for relief of severe discomfort.
  • Tell your doctor if troublesome.
  • Read more: After your immunisation
  • Signs of an allergic reaction such as skin rash, itching, blisters, peeling skin, swelling of your face, lips, mouth or problems breathing
  • Allergic reactions to influenza vaccine are very rare.
  • If you develop these signs within a few days of the vaccination, tell your doctor immediately or call HealthLine free on 0800 611 116.

Where can I get vaccinated?

People eligible for a free flu vaccine
Eligible people can get a free vaccination from their family doctor/general practice, and it is usually the practice nurse who gives the vaccine.

Many community pharmacies provide free influenza vaccinations to people aged 13 years and older and pregnant women (any trimester).
 
People who are not eligible to receive a free flu vaccine
Influenza vaccination is available from:

Please contact your provider regarding the cost of getting the flu vaccine.

Learn more

The following links have more information on the influenza vaccine:

Frequently asked questions about the flu vaccine 
Flu can be anywhere FightFlu, Ministry of Health, NZ  

References

  1. Everything you need to know about flu 2020 The Immunisation Advisory Centre 2020, NZ
  2. Influenza vaccines The Immunisation Advisory Centre, NZ
  3. Vaccine administration - overview The Immunisation Advisory Centre, NZ
Credits: Sandra Ponen, Pharmacist. Reviewed By: Angela Lambie, Pharmacist, Auckland Last reviewed: 28 Mar 2019