Every winter, hospitals face a large increase in emergency respiratory admissions in elderly people. A case-control study was undertaken to assess the effect of routine influenza vaccine in preventing such admissions among a cohort of UK elderly presenting with acute respiratory illness during winter 2003-2004. 157 hospitalised cases and 639 controls (matched for age, sex and week of consultation) were interviewed. In a winter typical of levels of circulating influenza in recent years, influenza vaccine did not show a protective effect on emergency respiratory admissions overall (adjusted OR 1.2 (95%CI 0.8, 1.9). Policy makers should not rely solely on influenza vaccine routinely having a large effect on winter pressures, and should focus on additional preventive strategies.