As an adult, it’s good to get into the habit of putting a flu shot on your annual health checklist. After all, the flu (or influenza) can cause serious illnesses, including a heart attack, stroke or even death.
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But the flu can infect people at any age. For that reason, it’s also very important for kids to get vaccinated in order to protect themselves and everybody else around them from getting this seasonal bug.
“I recommend all children ages six months of age and older get a flu shot,” says pediatrician Kimberly Giuliano, MD. “These vaccines are incredibly safe and have been around for many years. They definitely help prevent severe disease and deaths.”
Much like it does for adults, a flu shot for kids offers protection against serious illness. Kids who get the flu vaccine are less likely to get sick and less likely to need to be hospitalized if they do get the flu.
After all, the flu doesn’t care how old you are. Anybody can get very sick, including children. For example, kids under age 2 are one of the groups at an increased risk for bad influenza if they get infected.
Dr. Giuliano notes that kids who live with underlying medical conditions are especially at risk of developing more serious disease.
“In children living with immunocompromising conditions, the virus can spread more quickly throughout their bodies and give them a more severe case of the flu,” she says. “Children living with heart disease, asthma or other kinds of lung conditions can also have more breathing difficulties and challenges with the illness, as compared to children without.”
The potential for flu shot side effects in kids might make some parents hesitant to have their kids vaccinated. But the main side effects of the children’s flu shot are arm soreness and muscle aches, both of which go away relatively quickly.
Flu complications, however, can be much more serious. And there’s often no way of knowing if you’ll have a serious reaction to the flu.
“Although complications and more severe cases of the flu are more common in children with underlying medical conditions, we do see kids who are very sick with the flu every year,” says Dr. Giuliano. “That includes children who were otherwise healthy who are admitted to the hospital with severe pneumonia. They often need oxygen, and sometimes even ventilator support.”
In recent years, the flu season wasn’t as bad. That’s because the precautions that people used to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — wearing masks, social distancing and staying home when sick — also prevented many other viruses from spreading, including influenza. With most of these precautions being dropped, conditions are right for the flu to spread.
Plus, Dr. Giuliano says we can look to trends elsewhere in the world for a clue as to what the U.S. flu season might look like — and the 2022-2023 flu season in other places is looking busy. “What we’re seeing in other parts of the world, most specifically Australia, is that they are having an earlier onset of their flu season, as well as higher rates,” she notes. “If that trend continues, we will likely be seeing that here in the U.S. as well.”
Experts recommend adults and kids get a flu shot in September or October. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recommends that kids under age 9 who are getting the flu vaccine for the first time should get a second dose about a month after their first dose.
“Typically, we see the flu rates start to diminish by springtime, and so it’s best to get the vaccine before flu starts to circulate,” advises Dr. Giuliano. “You don’t want to be exposed to that first case of the flu if you haven’t received your vaccine yet.
Luckily, she adds that the children’s flu vaccine is typically effective for kids for about six to nine months after it’s been given. “Getting vaccinated in September or October will prepare you for the upcoming season,” Dr. Giuliano notes.
When it comes to getting a flu shot for your child, you might have heard about the nasal spray vaccine. This option hasn’t been as common in recent years due to production and distribution challenges, although Dr. Giuliano says it should be available “in some limited supplies” this year.
Given that your kids might worry about getting a shot, you may wonder if it’s an acceptable alternative. Dr. Giuliano says the nasal spray could be a viable option for kids nervous about needles or an injection. “Perhaps a child afraid of needles could think of this as a potential option.”
However, she stresses the nasal spray vaccine isn’t appropriate for everybody. Kids living with certain medical conditions, such as immunocompromising conditions or severe asthma, shouldn’t get the nasal vaccine. “That’s because it’s a live virus,” Dr. Giuliano explains. “It could potentially make some of these kids ill. We wouldn’t want them to suffer complications when there’s a completely appropriate and safe injection available to them.”
Plus, there’s some question about how effective the nasal spray vaccine is. “Some studies show that the nasal spray is bit more effective,” says Dr. Giuliano. “Some show that it’s a little bit less effective.”
The bottom line, she notes, is that it’s important to get some form of the flu vaccine for protection. “The one that’s going to be the most effective for your child is the one that gets into their body,” Dr. Giuliano says. “I wouldn’t worry over which one to pick if you have difficulty getting access to the nasal one. The injectable one is a completely fine option that provides just similar levels of protection for children.”
In addition to getting a flu shot, kids should make sure they are vaccinated against COVID-19. “We don’t have a vaccine out there for every single virus, but these two we know can be especially problematic,” says Dr. Giuliano. “And so it’s great that we have the vaccination option. Protecting yourself with a vaccine for flu and a vaccine for COVID is definitely going to reduce the risk of your child having serious respiratory illnesses this year.”
As flu season approaches, kids and families should also make sure they’re following good health hygiene. “Make sure you’re washing your hands really well,” stresses Dr. Giuliano. “Teach kids to cough into their arms instead of into their hands or into the air, where they’re more likely to spread the viruses to other folks.”
Above all, stay home if you’re not feeling well. “It doesn’t have to be COVID,” Dr. Giuliano says. “If you have a cough, respiratory symptoms or a fever, give yourself that time that you need to rest and recover. You’ll also reduce the spread of any respiratory viruses to other people.”
For anyone who’s concerned about the flu shot, Dr. Giuliano recommends reaching out to your child’s doctor and talking with them to get any questions answered.
“These vaccines are effective, they save lives and they’re safe,” says Dr. Giuliano. “We don’t die from vaccines — but we do die from infections. We still expect flu to spread from person to person and place to place like it has in the past, and getting the vaccine is the best way to protect yourself and prevent the spread.”