The flu shot, explained

Stopping the flu saves lives. Find out why getting your shot is good for you and for others.


Get your flu shot now

April–June is usually a good time to get your flu shot in Australia. It’s particularly important to get your flu vaccination before winter this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Influenza is a major cause of illness in Australia and people die of the flu every year. Some years, the prevailing flu strains are much more severe than others, and this is unpredictable.

The most important weapon against flu and its complications is vaccination. The more people who are vaccinated, the less the flu will spread in the community.

Talk to your GP about the best time for you to get your flu shot. Being vaccinated at any time is better than not being vaccinated at all.

The level of protection provided by a flu vaccine can vary according to a person’s age, what other health conditions they may have, how much flu virus is circulating in the community and how good a match the vaccine is for the virus strains that are the most prominent for that season.

So in addition to vaccination it is important to know what else you can do to stop the spread of flu.

Should I get vaccinated during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Yes. Flu vaccination is particularly important this year. Hospitals and health care providers are already stretched because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Flu vaccination will not prevent you from getting infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, but it will help you avoid influenza and its complications.

Minimising the spread of flu is a good way to reduce strain on the health care system during the pandemic.

Find out more about why getting your flu shot now will help in the fight against COVID-19

For 2020, some changes have been made to the National Immunisation Program.

  • All children aged 6 months to 5 years are now eligible for subsidised flu vaccination
    Find out more about flu vaccination for children
  • A new quadrivalent vaccine that works against the 4 most important influenza strains is available specifically for people over 65 years of age

Continue to practise social distancing (at least 1.5 metres) and careful hygiene when getting your vaccination.

Let your doctor or pharmacist know before you attend an appointment if:

  • you have fever, shortness of breath or a cough
  • you have returned from overseas in the last 14 days
  • you have recently been in contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19.

What is the flu?

The flu is not the same as a cold. It is a serious disease that for some people can lead to complications like bronchitis, croup, pneumonia, heart and organ damage, brain damage and death.

Influenza is a viral disease so antibiotics are not effective against it.

Flu symptoms include:

  • runny nose or sneezing
  • cough or sore throat
  • fever and chills
  • headache
  • body aches
  • vomiting and diarrhoea (more common in children).

Even if you don’t get any of these conditions, having the flu is a miserable experience, and will put you out of action, and off work or school for a week or more. Some people are ill for much longer.

How can I tell if I have the flu?

How does flu spread?

Influenza spreads when an infected person sneezes or coughs and droplets containing the virus are expelled. 

A sneeze can contain up to 2 million virus particles, travel at 160 km/h, and spread up to 1.5 metres. When these land on surfaces, the virus can be picked up by people who touch the surface up to 2 days later.

People are infectious and can spread the virus before they even know they are sick, and remain infectious until 5-7 days after symptoms begin. Children and people with weakened immune systems may be infectious for even longer.

Who is most at risk?

Flu is most dangerous to the very old, the very young, pregnant women and people with underlying chronic health conditions. 

Some of these people will not be able to be immunised, so it’s important that healthy Australians do everything they can to avoid spreading the disease.

In 2020, Australian governments have set aside millions of doses of influenza vaccines so that those most at risk can be vaccinated against the flu for free. These people include:

  • those aged 65 years and over
  • pregnant women
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over 6 months of age
  • children between 6 months and 5 years
  • those with a range of chronic conditions, including heart disease, coronary artery disease, asthma and COPD, diabetes, kidney disease, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, HIV, cancer and more.

Check with your doctor or clinic to see if you or your family members are eligible for free vaccination under Australian or state government programs.

Who should be vaccinated against the flu?

Annual vaccination is recommended for everyone over 6 months of age. If you aren’t covered under the free vaccination program, you can still be vaccinated for a reasonable cost.

Many employers offer free vaccination to staff, and some pharmacists can give the flu shot, as well as GPs and clinics, local council community health clinics, schools, aged care facilities and hospitals.

Ask your GP, clinic or pharmacist where you can get your flu shot.

Find out more about where to get a flu shot

I had a shot last year, why do I need another one?

Every year the flu viruses that circulate in the community change, and the protection from last year’s vaccine diminishes over time. It takes up to 2 weeks to get full protection from this year’s flu shot.

This year there are several new strains of influenza A and B. The quadrivalent 2020 flu vaccine is effective against two strains of influenza A (H1N1 and H3N2), and two strains of influenza B.

There is a different vaccine for people over 65 years of age, which offers them the best protection.

Is it safe?

All medicines can have side effects, but the influenza vaccine is very safe. The chance of experiencing a serious problem from having a vaccine is far lower than the risk of serious harm from catching influenza.

Your health professional will ask you questions before giving you the vaccine, to make sure that you are not at higher risk of side effects, because of allergies or other problems. 

You may experience these common side effects:

  • pain, redness or swelling at the injection site
  • body aches, tiredness or slight fever

These may be signs that the vaccine is triggering your immune response, which is what it is designed to do. They will go away by themselves within a couple of days. The vaccine doesn’t contain any live virus, so you can’t get the flu from being vaccinated.

Talk to your doctor or health professional if you are worried about side effects on you or your child.

Does age matter?

Different vaccines are suitable for people of different ages. 

Find out more about flu vaccination for children

Influenza vaccines for children aged 6 months to under 3 years include:

Influenza vaccines for children aged 3 years to under 5 years include:

Influenza vaccines for children aged at least 5 years and adults less than 65 years include:

Influenza vaccines for adults aged 65 years and over include:

Your health professional can tell you which of these vaccines they are using for your flu shot.

Find further information about 2020 flu vaccines at the TGA website

What else can I do to stop the spread of flu?

Help keep our community safe and healthy by taking these simple steps.

  • If you catch the flu, stay home from work or school and don’t soldier on. Don’t visit schools, childcare centres or aged care homes.
  • If you cough or sneeze, use a tissue and wash your hands after disposing of it.
  • If you don’t have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your elbow or sleeve, rather than your hands.
  • Don’t share personal items such as water bottles, cups, plates and cutlery.
  • Keep your hands clean – wash with soap and water or use hand sanitiser several times a day.

The good news is that taking these precautions will also slow the spread of other diseases, like colds.

Where can I find out more?