Far more than just a ‘bad cold’, the flu can leave you feeling pretty wretched.

While a bad cold can include aching limbs, headaches and general exhaustion too, the difference with flu is it’s more severe, you’ll probably struggle to get out of bed and there’s often a fever as well.

[Read more: 5 foods to cure cold and flu symptoms]

You’re probably aware that flu vaccines are available, and offered for free to certain groups on the NHS – but still a bit unsure why exactly this is, and who’s eligible for a free jab? Read on…

Is flu really serious?

If you’re in overall good health, you’ll usually recover naturally from flu after a week or so and some sensible rest; pain-killers, plenty of fluids and keeping warm all help. However, flu can be very serious for those less able to fight off or cope with the virus.

Complications can arise, including a worsening of any pre-existing health conditions such as asthma and diabetes, and flu also leads to a number of deaths each year, particularly in the vulnerable elderly.

 

When are flu jabs recommended?

“No one likes getting the flu, but while most of us are able to shake it off, there are certain groups whose long-term health is at greater risk from the virus. For these people, a regular flu vaccination is highly recommended,” says Dr Adam Simon, chief medical officer at PushDoctor.co.uk.

 “Steering clear of flu is particularly important for people with weaker immune systems, such as those over 65, diabetics, or people who’ve recently been treated for cancer.

You should also have the jab if you have a history of health problems with your kidneys or spleen (especially if your spleen has been removed), or you have a condition such as bronchitis or asthma that can make breathing difficult.”

Who’s eligible for a free jab?

The NHS provides free flu jabs for people deemed more at-risk from flu.

As well as the over-65s, and those with long-term health conditions, those recommended to receive a jab also include people who’ve had a stroke, people on medication that may affect their immune system, and also people who are a main carer for an older or disabled person.

Pregnant women are also eligible for a free jab, in order to protect their own health and that of their baby.

If you’re unsure or concerned about your own flu risk, speak to your GP or pop into a Boots Pharmacy or LloydsPharmacy to ask for advice. Nasal spray flu vaccines are available for children.

I had a jab last year – do I really need another one?

Yes – because flu viruses are constantly mutating, so new vaccines are developed each season. “With many illnesses, one jab will keep you immunised for the rest of your life.

Unfortunately, the flu virus is very clever and constantly changes to build up a resistance to the vaccines we produce,” explains Dr Simon.

“That’s why you need to have a new flu jab every year and stay one step ahead.”

It’s also important to be aware that there are lots of flu viruses, and while the vaccines are the best form of protection currently available, they won’t provide 100% protection against flu, so you’d still need to seek medical advice if you experienced symptoms at any point.

It’s best to try at get it done at the start of the season if possible.

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Can I catch flu from a flu jab?

No – technically, this isn’t possible, as there are no ‘active viruses’ in the vaccine. The NHS points out that you may experience some mild aches and a mild fever for a couple of days afterwards, but serious side-effects are deemed very rare. As with everything we come into contact with, allergic reactions can occur. If you did experience any warning signs, seek urgent medical advice.

Can I get it done if I’m not eligible for a free one?

Yes – if you don’t fall into any of the eligibility categories for a free jab, you can still choose to pay for one privately (providing there is no other reason preventing you from having the jab, such as a history of allergic reactions to flu vaccines).

Check local pharmacies to see where it’s on offer in your area.