You may be a hardy type who can boast that you never get sick over winter so it's tempting to dismiss the need to get the flu vaccine. But are your risking your health unnecessarily?

Indeed, if you know history, you’d be well aware how the influenza virus has a habit of making its presence felt over the centuries. There’s the infamous Spanish flu pandemic, which reportedly killed more than 50 million people worldwide from 1918-1920. And 1966’s pandemic is thought to have wiped out about one million people.

More recently, 2009’s swine flu is thought to have killed more than 200,000 people. Who knows when the next pandemic will be?

There has been a concerted campaign lately with the medical profession urging us to go and get jabbed during flu vaccination season. And even if you choose to “soldier on” and ignore the messages – and may even fly through many winters without even a sniffle – some preventative measures could help.

One thing is for sure, says Dr Tony Bartone, vice-president of the Australian Medical Association – you are more vulnerable to the risks associated with getting the flu as you get older. The vaccine is free to anyone over 65.

Generally speaking, any Australian from six months old is encouraged to have the vaccine, he says. Dr Bartone adds that GPs can never predict how severe a flu season is going to be, but they prefer to err on the side of caution.

“Every year, there are subtle shifts in the strains of influenza out there. And there is no rhyme or reason for that but every so often there can be a significant change in the flu strain, what’s called an antigenetic shift and drift. The whole population can be quite prone to developing infection, and that’s what we want to protect against,” says Dr Bartone.

Even without a pandemic, the figures are there – and they’re quite stark. The National Centre for Immunisation and Research, for example, says that in Australia there are thousands of hospitalisations due to influenza recorded each year. Government figures that estimate about 3000 Australians die from flu or flu complications annually.

However, because we don’t necessarily hear about these deaths, we may have become a bit blasé about the possible health consequences of getting the flu.

“That’s how society is these days,” says Dr Bartone. “What has become clear is because of globalisation and shifts in population and travel times shrinking, is that things change quickly. That’s changed the dynamic of the spread of viruses like influenza. What hasn’t changed is that the flu is still the flu and needs to be treated with respect.” 

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The flu shot is free for anyone over 65, as they are at greater risk from the virus

Dr Bartone says it’s important to have the vaccine annually, as the strains change each year, not only to protect yourself but also your work colleagues, close family members and friends. The vaccine covers you for about six months. By the end of this winter new flu strains will have emerged, says Dr Bartone.

“What immunisation does is offer cross-protection between one strain and the other,” he says. While GPs are encouraging their patients to have the vaccine now, the worst months for catching the flu are in fact late August and September.

Dr Bartone says he often hears people complaining that they got the flu vaccine and then had the worst winter with colds and flu after that. He says that’s just bad luck. “There are always multiple viruses around and there is no correlation,” he says.

“Another myth is that the flu vaccine actually gives you a dose of the flu.”

So what are flu symptoms? “If you get the flu, you’ll know about it. It’s a very serious illness,” says Dr Bartone. Symptoms over the first few days include fever, headaches, chills, muscle aches and pains.

Then, as it progresses, the symptoms often worsen: vomiting, tiredness, poor appetite, severe muscle aches and an inability to get out of bed. It can then lead to further complications such as pneumonia or bronchitis.

If you want to get the vaccine, don’t delay. If you fall ill with influenza – can you run down to your doctor or chemist and get the shot? The answer is no. “Too late,” says Dr Bartone.

Have you had the flu shot this year? Join the conversation below.

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