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InsuranceHealth insuranceFlu vaccine – should I or shouldn't I?
Health and prevention

Flu vaccine – should I or shouldn't I?


Source: iStock / scyther5

Your head aches, your limbs ache and your temperature is rising – these are typical flu symptoms. Many people have mixed feelings about the flu vaccine. Comparis explains the pros and cons of getting the flu vaccine.

It's the same story every autumn – should you get the flu vaccine or not?

  • On the one hand, you might end up in bed for up to two weeks.
  • On the other, you are keenly aware of the debate surrounding unnecessary vaccinations, low levels of effectiveness and possible side effects.

 This uncertainty is what leads many to put the decision on hold or wait until the ideal time to get vaccinated (mid-October till mid-November, but can be later) has passed.

Between October and April, the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) provides weekly reports on the status of flu-like illnesses in Switzerland (in German, French and Italian only). This ensures that the general population as well as doctors are informed of any flu outbreaks in good time. If the number of suspected flu cases reaches 69 per 100,000 inhabitants, this is considered a flu epidemic. 

No noticeable increase in the number of vaccine doses

According to the FOPH, around 1.21 million vaccine doses are available in Switzerland for the 2019/2020 flu season. This number is comparable with the quantity produced in recent years. The largest number of vaccine doses were supplied in 2006 (1.39 million). Since then, the figures have not fluctuated significantly. 

Unknowingly contagious

The problem is that vaccine sceptics endanger not only themselves, but others too. Many of those infected don't notice that they are ill or think they just have a slight cold. By continuing to use public transport, going to work or to the cinema, they unknowingly spread the virus – including to at-risk groups such as pregnant women or the elderly.

What is the difference between the flu and a cold?

Cold (upper respiratory tract infection)Flu (influenza)
Onset of illnessGradual worsening of symptoms
Abrupt onset of severe symptoms
High (38 to 41 degrees)
HeadacheDull, mild
Moderate to severe
CoughMild irritation to throat, often productive
Dry cough to begin with, often painful
AppetiteUsually unaffectedVery little
FatigueWearinessSevere exhaustion, weakness
Aching limbsMildSevere muscle and joint pain
Nasal symptomsFrequent sneezing at onset, then blocked and/or runny noseBlocked and/or runny nose in some cases
DurationThree to seven days
Seven to 14 days
TimingAll year roundOctober to April

Who should get vaccinated?

The following people should be vaccinated against flu:

  • Those with a high risk of complications: people aged 65 or over, people with chronic illnesses (including heart and lung conditions and metabolic disorders), women who are pregnant or who have recently given birth, and children over 6 months of age who were born prematurely
  • People in contact with those with increased risk of complications or with babies under 6 months old
  • Employees working in healthcare and childcare establishments (nurseries, etc.)

How often should I get vaccinated against the flu?

A flu vaccine generally provides protection for about four to six months. You should therefore be vaccinated once a year to cover you for the flu season during the winter months. However, flu viruses are constantly changing and therefore vary from season to season. This is why the vaccine has to be modified for each flu season.

The downsides of the flu vaccine

Vaccines protect – even if not 100%. But why are so many reluctant to get the flu vaccine? For one thing, the protection it offers is limited. While the measles vaccine is almost 100% effective at preventing an outbreak of the disease, the flu vaccine is only around 60% effective. This is because the flu virus has time to mutate after the vaccine is manufactured in February. If it does, this will affect rates of effectiveness. What's more, not all flu vaccines protect against the latest viruses.

Possible side-effects are another negative aspect:

  • Redness and swelling at the point of injection
  • Fever
  • Aching muscles
  • Feeling slightly unwell
  • Rashes, oedema or breathing difficulties if allergies are present
  • Anaphylactic shock (immediate allergic reaction)
  • Guillain–Barré syndrome (one in one million people vaccinated)

Severe side effects are extremely rare and many times rarer than the risk of serious complications from the flu.

Even though the vaccine offers limited protection, it is not completely without effect. According to experts, the illness is less severe in vaccinated people and complications are more seldom.

Why should I get vaccinated?

  1. To protect yourself and others: the vaccine protects the majority of vaccinated people from the flu and its consequences. It also prevents you from spreading the illness (unknowingly) to other people (including at-risk groups such as pregnant women and those with chronic illnesses).

  2. To lower the risk of serious complications: there is less chance of secondary infections developing in the flu-weakened body. These infections are bacterial and can be more dangerous than the original illness. The vaccine prevents serious outcomes from developing in at-risk groups in particular.

  3. No days spent in bed or hospital: genuine flu can last up to two weeks, and in some cases even longer. Complications like a lung infection may lead to a stay in hospital.

  4. Less expensive and time-consuming than catching the flu: the flu vaccine prevents expensive hospital stays and absences due to illness. On national flu vaccination day at the beginning of November, GP surgeries and many chemists offer flu vaccines with no need to register beforehand. The vaccine costs 30 to 40 francs. Health insurance covers the cost for people who are particularly at risk, if they have reached their deductible. In the workplace, these costs are often paid by the employer.

  5. Less fear of catching flu: if you are vaccinated, you don’t need to be so afraid of taking public transport, going to shopping centres or concerts, or attending family celebrations – you can just relax, even in crowded spaces.

How can I protect myself from the flu on a day-to-day basis?

Aside from getting the flu vaccination, there are some simple measures you can take on a daily basis to prevent the transmission of harmful viruses. 

  • Wash your hands regularly or use hand sanitizer (e.g. after travelling by public transport)
  • Stay at home if you start developing symptoms
  • Make sure you are fully recovered before returning to work, going to the cinema etc.
  • Cough and sneeze into your elbow

If you still do not wish to get vaccinated, you should at least take basic hygiene precautions such as washing your hands and sneezing into a handkerchief – and stay at home at the first sign of illness out of consideration to others.

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