Why you can still catch a cold or flu after the flu jab

Immune System Expert
Ask Dr. Jen Tan

07 October 2013

The flu vaccine

Firstly, the flu. This is more than a severe or ‘heavy’ cold as some might think – it is caused by a specific bug known as the influenza virus. This family of viruses contains variants which have caused death and illness over the decades – from Spanish flu (now believed to be H1N1)1, 2, in 1918; Bird or Avian flu (H5N1 in 1997 and H7N9 in 2013)3. and Swine flu (H1N1 again) in 20094.

For the 2013/2014 winter season, the World Health Organisation has recommended that vaccines provide protection against up to 4 viruses, including the H1N1 and H3N2 viruses5. These are the ones the WHO judges to be the most dangerous to health this winter. The choice is reviewed each year and new recommendations made as viruses change or mutate. For instance, the H3N2 virus is one which mutated out of the Swine flu virus in 20106.

However, most winters, it is not these ‘famous’ viruses which cause problems for the majority of people. Although not likely to be as dangerous or spread as easily, the more common flu viruses we pick up from day to day can lead to symptoms of a bad or heavy cold as well as flu symptoms.

What about colds?

Well, they tend not to be as dangerous, but the key reason that there are no vaccines developed against cold viruses is that there are over 200 different types which cause infections, with exotic sounding names such as rhinovirus, coronavirus and respiratory syncytial virus, and it is impossible to know which ones to aim for.

The flu vaccine won't protect you against everything

So, it is clear that the flu jab will not protect you against all the flu viruses lurking around – just the ones which have hit the news and thought by the experts to be the most dangerous this coming winter. It does not protect you against any new ones which may be round the corner and it certainly does not help your body fight the common cold viruses, and some of these can cause symptoms which can be just as inconvenient when you are looking forward to a good rest and enjoyable time during the Christmas break.

The flu jab is a controversial topic and this article is not intended to add to the argument. However, whatever your views are and whether or not you will be having one this winter, it is clear that the flu vaccination will not protect you against every bug lying in wait on the escalator rail, door handle or telephone.

There really is no substitute for keeping your immune system strong.


1. http://www.nature.com/nature/focus/1918flu/index.html
2. JK Taubenberger et al. Reconstruction of the 1918 influenza virus: Unexpected rewards from the past.
DOI: 10.1128/mBio.00201-12 (2012).
3. http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Avian-flu/Pages/Introduction.aspx
4. http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pandemic-flu/Pages/Introduction.aspx
5. http://www.nhsdirect.wales.nhs.uk/encyclopaedia/f/article/flujab,seasonal/
6. http://www.cdc.gov/flu/swineflu/h3n2v-cases.htm

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