Editor’s note: This post was updated August 2020.
Protecting children from illness, especially influenza or flu, is top of mind when you’re a parent and especially true when your children are very young.
Marshfield Children’s Pediatrician Dr. James Meyer has helped children of all ages through severe and not-so-severe flu seasons, including children with complications from flu.
“This year with the COVID-19 pandemic, it is especially important that we maximize protection against influenza,” said Dr. Meyer. “COVID-19 and influenza illnesses can look similar, but the treatments are not the same. Either infection can weaken the immune system so an infected person may be more susceptible to getting the other infection, possibly with more serious illness. “
Sometimes the term flu is used to refer to viral illness with intestinal symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea which go away without medication or serious consequences to a child. Actual influenza disease, the real “flu” though a common illness can be severe for a young child or individuals with more complex medical problems. Classic symptoms of influenza are high fever, cough, muscle soreness and dizziness with occasional intestinal symptoms.
“Especially young children, ages 2 and younger whether they’re otherwise healthy, could need medical care because of the flu,” he said, “and that could mean hospital care.”
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Statistics bear this out. Nationally, more than 20,000 children under age 5 are hospitalized because of flu complications, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In the 2018-2019 influenza season 127 children died because of the flu.
Flu vaccine is developed each year to protect against flu viruses that are predicted to be the most common during the upcoming season. CDC recommends annual influenza vaccination for everyone 6 months and older with any licensed, age-appropriate flu vaccine (Injectable Influenza Vaccine for children aged 6 months and older or nasal spray vaccine/LAIV4 for children 2 years of age and older) with no preference expressed for any one vaccine over another. If the nasal spray vaccine is not available right away and the flu shot is, flu experts say children ages 2-8 should get the flu shot.
Babies 6 months old and younger are not approved for flu vaccination. “That’s why it’s important for everyone caring for really young children or around young children to get vaccinated not only to protect themselves but also to protect those children,” Meyer said.
When should children get a flu vaccination?
October is a good time and allows protection as long as possible during the flu season. Getting the vaccine later can still protect children and adults since flu cases peak in January through March.
Getting vaccinated can reduce flu illnesses, doctor’s visits, missed work and school days, and prevent flu-related hospitalizations and deaths in children.
Dr. Meyer encourages parents and caregivers to talk with their children’s health care providers about which vaccine is best and to get answers to questions, especially if a child has a chronic medical condition like:
- Disorders of the brain or nervous system
- Chronic lung disease
- Heart disease
- Disorders of the blood, kidney and liver
- Weakened immune system
- Or is on long-term aspirin therapy
“The best way to protect children from the flu is to get them vaccinated each year,” Meyer said. “A moment of discomfort for a child – and the parent – could potentially save that child from hospitalization and severe complications.”