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What is a Flu Shot?

Influenza, also called the flu, is an infection of the upper airway caused by an influenza virus. Symptoms can include fever, headache, runny nose, sore throat, or cough. Every year there is a period of time where there are more outbreaks of the flu, this is called flu season. Flu season generally occurs during the fall, winter and early spring. The influenza vaccines protect against the viruses that cause influenza. To learn more about the flu and the flu vaccines, and to access flu-related information from your health authority, visit our Influenza (Flu) Season health feature.

Note: Live attenuated influenza vaccine (given as a nasal spray and also known as LAIV or FluMist®) will not be available in Canada for the 2019/20 influenza (flu) season.

How it Works?

Influenza (flu), a contagious viral disease, can usually be prevented by getting immunized with a flu vaccine. The inactivated influenza vaccine contains several different strains of killed influenza viruses that are most likely to be circulating within the population in a given year. This vaccine is injected into a muscle, usually in the upper arm. The body develops antibodies to fight off the similar strains of influenza within about 2 weeks.

A flu vaccine (FluMist) that is given as a spray in the nose is also available in Canada. Because this flu vaccine uses live flu virus, it is not recommended for children younger than 2 years, pregnant women, people with some health conditions, or people over age 59. For more information, talk with your doctor or public health nurse.

The vaccine is reformulated every year because the influenza viruses change in ways that make a previous year’s vaccine ineffective. In Canada, the United States, and other temperate areas of the northern hemisphere, flu epidemics usually occur in the winter. To be fully protected, you need to be immunized each year.

Why use it?

How well the flu vaccine works to prevent influenza in part depends on how close the viruses in the vaccine match the flu viruses circulating in the population. A person’s age and the body’s ability to develop antibodies also influence the effectiveness of the vaccine.

When the vaccine contains viruses similar to those circulating in the population, both types of vaccine are about equally effective in preventing the flu. The vaccines prevent the flu in about 70% to 90% of adults younger than 65. Protection is less in people age 65 and older.  But the vaccine is still important for preventing severe illness, complications and death from the flu virus.

Side Effects?

Some people who are at high risk for complications from the flu can’t get a flu shot. These people may benefit from taking an antiviral medicine. If you have an allergy to eggs, you may still be able to have the flu shot or nasal spray.

The vaccine can still be given if an otherwise healthy person has a minor illness, such as a cold with or without a fever.

It is not known whether the flu shot can increase the risk for recurrence of Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) in people with a history of the disease. Usually, the flu shot is only recommended for these people if they are at high risk for severe complications of the flu. If you have had GBS, talk to your doctor before getting vaccinated.

You may have to pay for the nasal spray vaccine.

Priority Immunization?

Ideally, you should get a flu vaccine every year. In case of a shortage, the NACI recommends that the following people have first priority for receiving the flu vaccine:

  • People age 65 and older
  • People ages 2 to 64 who have medical conditions that increase their risk of influenza-related complications
  • Young children between the ages of 6 months and 59 months
  • Health care workers who have direct contact with patients
  • People who live in long-term care facilities
  • Close contacts, including household contacts and caregivers of children 59 months of age and younger as well as close contacts of individuals at high risk for complications from influenza
  • Pregnant women
  • People who are morbidly obese (BMI of 40 or more)
  • First Nations and Aboriginal peoples

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