Protecting children from illness, especially influenza, is top of mind when you’re a parent and especially true when your children are very young.
Why are kids more at risk?
“The younger a child is, the less mature his or her immune system is,” said Dr. Christopher Ordonez, Marshfield Clinic Health System pediatrician. “Therefore, they have a higher risk of contracting the flu virus and having complications.”
Sometimes the term “flu” is used to refer to viral illness with intestinal symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea. Those typically go away without medication or serious consequences to a child. Actual influenza disease, the real “flu,” has the classic symptoms of high fever, cough, muscle soreness and dizziness with occasional intestinal symptoms.
Dr. Ordonez says children younger than five, and especially those under the age of two, are at risk of severe complications. And those with chronic medical conditions face an even greater threat. If hospitalization is needed, kids can receive antiviral drugs to try to make the illness milder and shorter. But that’s not the only thing doctors can offer.
“Children admitted to the hospital will always receive individualized treatments,” said Dr. Jim Meyer, Marshfield Clinic Health System pediatrician. “We may need to maximize their breathing through oxygen support, manage secretions through suction methods or optimize their circulation with proper hydration.”
Nationally, thousands of children younger than five are hospitalized each year from flu complications. The CDC reported 39 pediatric deaths in 2021-2022. However, the severity of flu seasons fluctuates, and during 2019-2020, that number was 199.
Your best defense
The 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. Babies 6 months old and younger are not approved for flu vaccination.
It is never too late to get a vaccine. Even if you missed out on the vaccine in the fall, getting a shot during the winter months can offer protection because flu cases typically 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
“Patients with any of these medical conditions can have severe complications when having flu infection,” said Dr. Ordonez. “Those potential complications include bacterial pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections and worsening respiratory efforts that could lead to a hospital stay.”