Flu vaccination during the Covid-19 pandemic

Everyone with a heart condition should get a 2020 flu vaccine. Free flu vaccines are available for high-risk groups during the Covid-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. Here's why it's important and some advice on how to get the vaccine safely.

Woman in bed with flu

People with heart disease have a higher risk of catching the flu (influenza). They're also more likely to suffer complications from having it. A flu vaccination can help reduce this risk.

Doctors are asking anyone over the age of 65 with a heart condition, or in other high-risk groups, to get their 2020 flu shot. Although it won’t prevent against getting Covid-19, it will give people with heart conditions the best possible chance of staying well during winter.

How does the flu affect people with heart disease?

The flu puts added stress on the body, which can increase blood pressure, raise your heart rate and increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke. A recent study found people with heart disease were six times more likely to have a heart attack in the week after being sick with the flu.

Flu can make the symptoms of heart conditions worse and can be a trigger for atrial fibrillation episodes. People with heart disease are also more likely to develop flu complications such as pneumonia or respiratory failure.

What is the flu vaccine and how does it work?

The flu vaccination is an injection given to people to reduce their risk of getting the flu.

It contains strains of the flu virus that have been destroyed. This means they no longer live and are unable to cause disease. When the vaccination is given, the body detects the strains of the flu virus and responds by making antibodies to destroy them.

If a person comes into contact with the virus after the flu shot, the immune system will recognise the virus and antibodies will destroy it before you get sick.

The influenza strains included in the 2020 influenza vaccines are:

  • A/Brisbane/02/2018 (H1N1) pdm09-like virus 
  • A/South Australia/34/2019 (H3N2)-like virus 
  • B/Washington/02/2019-like virus 
  • B/Phuket/3073/2013-like virus 

There is currently no vaccine for the protection against Covid-19. 

Who can get a free flu jab? 

In New Zealand, the flu jab is free for anyone who is more at risk of getting flu or more likely to get serious complications from it. This includes anyone who is aged 65 or older and people with serious medical conditions. 

This includes anyone living with:

  • ischaemic heart disease (coronary artery disease)
  • congestive heart failure
  • rheumatic heart disease
  • congenital heart disease
  • cerebrovascular disease.

For a full list of conditions that are covered see the fightflu website or talk to your GP practice.

How and where do I get a flu jab?

During the Covid-19 pandemic, 2020 flu shots will be available for high-risk groups at doctor's surgeries and some local pharmacies.

You should:

  • Phone ahead to make an appointment
  • Find out about any infection control measures to follow during your visit
  • Stay two metres away from anyone other than the healthcare professional giving the vaccination
  • Maintain good hygiene practices at all time.  

When should I get vaccinated?

People in a high-risk group should get vaccinated as soon as possible.

If you're not in a priority group, talk to your doctor or pharmacy about when it will be available for you, and how much it will cost.

How long will it take for the vaccination to work?

It takes up to two weeks for the vaccination to work. If people come into contact with the virus before then, they won’t be protected against it. 

Will the flu vaccine affect my heart medication?

No. The flu vaccination will not affect your heart medication.

Is the flu vaccine 100% effective?

Unfortunately, the flu vaccine doesn't guarantee people won't get the flu, but it does significantly reduce the chances of getting it.

Can the vaccine give you the flu?

No. You can't get the flu from the vaccine because it doesn't contain any live viruses. Sometimes people may experience mild reactions such as muscle pains and headaches after the vaccination, but this isn't the flu.

Can you get a reaction from the flu vaccination?

Most people don't suffer any unpleasant or dangerous reactions to the flu jab.

The most common reaction is pain and redness from the needle. Sometimes the vaccination also causes side effects such as headaches, muscle aches or fever. These should only last a few days.

On very rare occasions people can suffer a severe allergic reaction. Studies have estimated the risk at less than two in a million. By comparison, around 500 New Zealanders die every year from the flu.

You will be asked to wait for about 20 minutes at the clinic after your vaccination, to make sure you don't have a severe allergic reaction.

What is the best way to protect against flu? 

The best way to reduce the risk of getting the flu is to get a flu vaccination.

Other things you can do are:

  • Wash your hands regularly (wash hands and wrists with soap and water for 20 seconds). 
  • People with a fever of 38 degrees centigrade or above should avoid vaccination and reschedule the appointment with the doctor. 
  • Maintain general health by taking any prescribed medications, eating and sleeping well and doing regular exercise. These actions help to keep your immune system strong. 

Is there anyone who shouldn't have a flu vaccination?

  • Children under six months of age are too young to be vaccinated.
  • People with a fever of 38 degrees centigrade or above should avoid vaccination and reschedule the appointment with the doctor. 
  • The flu vaccine should not be given to some patients who are having certain cancer treatments.

It is also important to talk to your health professional beforehand if you:

  • have previously had Guillain-Barre syndrome.
  • had an allergic reaction to a previous vaccination.

How often do I need to get vaccinated?

You need to get your flu vaccination yearly, at the start of every flu season.

The vaccine is developed each year to protect you against the most common influenza strains.

What should I do if I get the flu?

People who have heart disease get the flu should get medical help early. Either by calling a doctor or Healthline on 0800 611 116.

Get urgent medical advice if you have:

  • a high fever that doesn't come down 
  • chills or severe shaking 
  • difficulty breathing or chest pain 
  • a purple or bluish colour round your lips, skin, fingers or toes 
  • seizures or convulsions. 

It’s important to talk to your pharmacist before taking any over the counter flu medications, as some of these can raise your blood pressure and affect your heart medication.

More about Covid-19 and heart disease