Discussing winter jabs

Winter has arrived in South Africa and the question on everyone’s mind is: Do I get the winter jabs (vaccines)?

The answer is yes! Will a flu shot protect you from COVID? NO! These are two different strains of virus. The COVID-19 vaccine will give you that protection.

But the flu vaccine still helps that you don’t get so sick in winter. By protecting yourself against one contagious infection, the flu, you should be able to reduce your level of risk somewhat against the other virus.

Getting your flu vaccine helps to ensure that healthcare professionals are freed up to respond to treating COVID-19 infections as fewer people need to be treated for severe flu. Ultimately, fewer flu infections result in less of a burden on hospitals, and more time for doctors and hospitals to focus on treating people who have serious COVID-19 illness.

So, how do flu vaccines work?

They are designed to protect us from developing serious sickness when we are exposed to a virus. The World Health Organisation decides annually on what strains will be put in the year’s vaccine. This is also why you need to do a flu jab annually so as to get the latest protection.

Who needs to prioritise getting a flu jab?

As some people’s immune systems are more vulnerable to disease, this makes them more at risk of developing dangerous complications associated with the flu. These include:

  • Pregnant women, and including mothers in the two-week period after delivery.
  • Babies and infants under two years.
  • Elderly people over the age of 65 years.
  • People with existing chronic diseases that affect their heart, lung, kidney or endocrine system, such those with as diabetes, asthma, or diseases that affect your immune system (such as HIV and AIDS).
  • Morbidly obese people, that is, those with a body mass index (BMI) equal or over 40, or other with a BMI≥35 who have obesity-related health conditions.
  • People who are 18 years old or younger who receive chronic aspirin therapy.

What are flu symptoms?

Symptoms of flu commonly include fever, cough, a sore throat and body aches. It can also cause headache, fatigue, muscle pain, shivers, vomiting and diarrhoea.

 How do we treat flu?

Antibiotics only treat bacterial infections and flu is viral, not bacterial. Anti-viral medications are only indicated for patients who are at very high-risk of complications related to flu, and are available only when prescribed by your doctor. Anti-viral agents, such as oseltamivir, are recommended for people at risk of complications.

When you have flu, you may feel awful, but unfortunately, there’s not usually much you can do besides wait it out. Most of the treatment is generic, and involves symptom relief, like pain medication, decongestants and antihistamines.

If you are generally healthy and don’t fall into any of the high-risk categories, then make sure to drink a lot of water and other clear fluid and get plenty of bed rest and sleep.

Is flu contagious?

Yes, it is, even before you started having symptoms. And here we follow the exact same precautions as for COVID: social distancing, washing hands, masks and sanitise. So, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your elbow when coughing or sneezing. Never sneeze into your hand and wash your hands right away if you do to prevent infecting others. This why it is so important to vaccinate against flu to minimise your chances of being sick and infecting those around you.

Will getting the flu vaccine give me flu?

No, it won’t. The inactivated viruses in the flu vaccine simply enable your body to make the antibodies needed to ward off influenza. It is like showing a picture to someone when you want to warn them about a dangerous person, like on TV’s most wanted criminals. Your immune system will recognise this ‘criminal’ and fight him off. Your arm may feel a bit sore where you were injected, and a few people get a slight temperature and aching muscles for a couple of days afterwards, but other reactions are very rare.

When should I have the flu vaccine?

Now! Vaccines are already available in pharmacies and at your doctor’s practices.

Let’s talk pneumonia vaccine

Winter increases the chances of getting pneumonia. Pneumonia is a lung infection that makes it hard to breathe.

Who should get this vaccine?

People over age 65. As you age, your immune system doesn’t work as well as it once did.

Those with weakened immune systems as a result of some or other chronic condition, like heart disease, diabetes, emphysema, asthma, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease(COPD).

Also, people who receive chemotherapy, people who have had organ transplants, and people with HIV or AIDS.

People who smoke. If you’ve smoked for a long time, the small hairs that line the insides of your lungs and help filter out germs could have damage and therefore not give adequate protection any more.

Heavy drinkers. Too much alcohol, may also result in a weakened immune system.

People getting over surgery or a severe illness. A patient who was in intensive care unit (ICU) and needed help breathing with a ventilator, is at risk of getting pneumonia. The same is true for a patient who has just had major surgery or if healing from a serious injury.

Does everyone have to have a pneumonia vaccine?

No! If you’re a healthy adult between ages 18 and 50, you can probably skip the vaccine.

Is there a specific time for a pneumonia vaccine?

No! You can get it done at any time of the year.

How long does it last?

Patients with underlying chronic disease should probably be revaccinated every five years. However, patients over 55 can get another type of pneumonia vaccine, which lasts forever.

Your clinic sister or doctor will give you the best advice how to go about getting the best protection against pneumonia.


Jeannie Berg is a pharmacist and accredited diabetes educator. She served as Diabetes Education Society of South Africa (DESSA) chairperson for four years and was a committee member for many years and served on an advisory board for South African diabetes guidelines as well. She also does online tutoring in diabetes management for The University of South Wales.

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