Cancer or its treatment can lower your resistance to infection and make you more likely to catch flu. The flu vaccination makes it less likely that you will catch flu.
Flu (influenza) is an infection caused by a virus. It is very infectious. You mainly catch it from coughs and sneezes of people who have the virus. The symptoms of flu often come on quickly and include:
- A high temperature (fever)
- Aching muscles
- A cough
- Extreme tiredness
Anyone who has flu feels quite unwell, but most healthy people recover within a few days as their immune system gets rid of the virus. Occasionally, people develop complications, such as severe chest infections. These are serious illnesses which can require hospital treatment. A small number of people die due to complications.
Cancer and immunity
Cancer or its treatment can lower your resistance to infection. Doctors call this immunosuppression or being immunocompromised. You may be more at risk of catching flu if this applies to you.
If you do get flu and have low immunity, you are more likely to become very ill. For example, you could develop a complication such as a chest infection (pneumonia).
The flu vaccination
The flu vaccination makes it less likely that you will catch flu. If you have had the vaccine and do get flu, there is a greater chance of a quicker recovery.
Adults have the vaccination as an injection into the muscle (intramuscular injection). Children usually have a nasal spray vaccine, although some children might need to have it as an injection.
The flu virus changes each year, so you need to have the vaccine again each year. This is to protect yourself against the most common type of flu predicted for that year.
Who should have the flu vaccination?
Some cancer treatments lower immunity and lower your resistance to flu. These include:
- Some targeted cancer drugs
- Some immunotherapy treatments
- Long term steroids
- Removal of the spleen
After cancer treatment, your resistance to infection might be low for some months or years.
Your GP or cancer specialist will usually recommend that you have the flu vaccine if one of these apply to you. Depending on your situation, they may suggest that you continue with regular flu vaccines once your treatment has finished. But do check with them and ask when it is best to have it.
When to have the flu vaccination
Have the vaccination before the flu virus starts to circulate in the population. This is most likely to happen during the winter months. Flu season in the UK is usually between December and March.
New vaccines are developed each year and vaccination clinics usually start in late September and continue through to mid November. You can contact your GP to find out about clinic times. Or, you might be able to have it at your local pharmacist. It is still worth having the vaccine after this time if you haven’t had it.
When to have it if you are having cancer treatment
Cancer specialists generally recommend that you should have the flu vaccine before you start any cancer treatment. But this isn’t always possible.
For many cancer types, your specialist may advise you to have the vaccine during treatment if you haven’t had one. They will explain when it is best to have this. This might depend on different factors, such as the level of white blood cells in your blood. For example, with chemotherapy, you might have it towards the end of one cycle and just before you start another cycle. The vaccine might not give you as much protection as it would a person whose immunity is not low, but it is still important for most people to have it.
Your specialist may recommend that you do not have a vaccine during treatment if you have a blood cancer. Cancers of the blood include leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma. They can let you know when you can have a vaccine after your treatment has finished.
If you have had a stem cell transplant, your specialist will usually suggest you wait about 6 months before you have the flu vaccine. Again, the length of time will depend on your individual situation.
Always ask your cancer specialist doctor or nurse about having the flu vaccine.
Can I get a free flu vaccine?
The flu vaccination is free to people who are at increased risk of catching flu. This includes those people who have low immunity due to a disease or treatment, such as cancer treatment.
It is also free for many children and those aged 65 years and over. The UK nations have plans to offer free vaccines for adults younger than 65 years later in the season.
Speak to your GP if you had your cancer treatment some time ago and you are not sure if you can have a free vaccine. If you are not eligible, you can book and pay for a vaccine at a range of pharmacies or private healthcare providers.
Read more about the flu vaccination programme (and who can get a free flu vaccine) where you live:
The flu vaccine and the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic
Those more at risk of getting flu are also more at risk of COVID-19. If you have the flu vaccine, you are helping to protect yourself from flu and any problems or hospital admissions this could lead to. This is even more important while COVID-19 is in circulation. You are also helping to reduce pressure on NHS services.
It is important to remember that the flu vaccine helps to protect you against flu, but it doesn’t protect you against coronavirus.