The flu vaccine is an immunization made each year to protect against strains of influenza virus that are expected to be circulating in the community in the upcoming influenza season. The vaccine stimulates your body’s immune system to build antibodies against influenza, making it stronger and ready to fight off the illness before it starts.
There is a free flu vaccine:
- For people 18 years and older that provides protection against three common strains of flu virus
- For people 6 months to 17 years of age that provides protection against four common strains of flu virus
A high-dose vaccine has been approved in Canada for those 65 years of age and older; however it is not publicly funded.
Your record of protection: After you get your immunization, you will be given a written record. Tell your doctor the date you received the influenza vaccine.
Flu vaccine for children
The expert advisory committee on vaccines in Canada (National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI)) recommends that children 6 months through 17 years receive a vaccine that protects against four strains of flu virus.
The traditional vaccine injection given in the arm is safe and works well to prevent influenza infection in children. If you would prefer that your child not have a needle, a nasal spray alternative called FluMist is also available and free for children age 2 through 17 years.
For more information, view the Nasal Spray Flu fact sheet(PDF file) [link to file: Nasal Spray Flu fact sheet].
Safety and side effects
The flu vaccine is safe. Most people who get the vaccine have either no or mild side effects. Mild side effects, which occur within 1 - 2 days after vaccination, include soreness or redness or swelling at the injection site.
Life-threatening allergic reactions are very rare. In very rare cases, the flu vaccine has been associated with:
Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS)
- GBS is a very uncommon disease that causes muscle paralysis.
- The risk is about 1 in one million doses of vaccine given.
Ocular respiratory syndrome (ORS)
- In 2000-2001, a small number of people who received the influenza vaccine developed ORS.
- ORS can cause red eyes, cough, chest tightness, difficulty breathing, hoarseness, sore throat and swelling of the face.
- Symptoms occur within 24 hours and resolve within 48 hours.
- Persons who experienced ORS in the past might safely have the flu vaccine but should talk to their healthcare provider before being immunized.
Protection against the flu
Influenza vaccine effectiveness can vary from year to year and among different age and risk groups. It cannot protect you from other types of viruses circulating in the fall/winter months that can cause illness much like influenza. The body needs 2 weeks to build up protection to the flu virus after you receive immunization; protection might last up to 1 year.
Who should get the vaccine
The National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI), which advises the Public Health Agency of Canada, recommends the flu vaccine for everyone 6 months of age and older. It is especially recommended for persons:
- At high risk for complications of flu
- Who might spread influenza to high-risk people
- Who provide essential community services
Who should not get the vaccine
The Health Department will not give the vaccine at clinics to anyone who:
- Has had severe allergic reaction to a past influenza vaccine such as:
- Throat and/or tongue swelling
- Difficulty breathing or shock
- Has a severe allergy to any part of the vaccine except egg
- Has a new or worsening illness, with or without fever (however, if you have a cold or other minor illness, you can still be immunized)
- Has had Guillain-Barré Syndrome within 6 weeks of a past influenza vaccine
- Has had Oculorespiratory syndrome with lower respiratory symptoms
- Is under 6 months of age
If you fall into any of the above categories, depending on the situation, you might need to speak with your physician, or return after an appropriate time interval.
Get the flu shot every year
The best time to get the vaccine is between October and mid-November each year. It is recommended to receive the vaccine before influenza reaches the community but it can be given even after there is influenza activity. It is also recommended for travellers to destinations where influenza is likely to be circulating.
- Adults: 1 dose of vaccine per year
- Children under 9 years old (who have never been immunized):
- 2 doses of vaccine given at least 4 weeks apart
- Then 1 dose per year thereafter
When to seek medical attention
As with other vaccines, you should stay for at least 15 minutes after receiving your immunization. You should seek medical attention if you experience the following:
- Swelling of the lips, tongue or face
- Trouble breathing
- Lasting or worsening weakness
- High fever (40°C or 104°F)
Contact your family doctor or go to the nearest emergency room right away if you have any of these symptoms within 3 days of getting the influenza vaccine.