It's a common question parents ask themselves this time of year: Does my child really need a flu shot? Though the flu may seem harmless, the truth is on average 20,000 children age 5 and younger are hospitalized due to flu symptoms each year.
"The flu can be deadly, especially in children younger than 5, and those who have certain health conditions such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease," said Kevin Polsley, MD, Loyola University Health System pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. "But even if your child doesn't have risk factors, he or she could still develop potentially fatal complications from the flu."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 40 percent of the children who died last year from the flu had no risk factors and 90 percent had not been vaccinated.
Influenza is a highly contagious virus. As cold weather begins to set in and with people spending more time indoors and in confined spaces, the chances of contracting the flu increases.
"The best way to protect kids from the flu and its potentially deadly symptoms is a flu shot," said Polsley. "Schools and day-care centers are perfect environments for the flu to spread. But just because your child doesn't go to school is not a guarantee they won't get the flu. It's everywhere."
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that every child 6 months or older get a flu shot.
"It's best to get the shot in the fall before we start to see a lot of flu activity because it takes two weeks for the body to develop an antibody response," said Polsley.
A nasal spray also is available for healthy children ages 2 and older. Though both the spray and shot protect kids from the flu, this year the CDC is recommending children ages 2-8 get the nasal spray, if possible, as there is evidence that it's more effective for younger children.
Still, a flu shot is preferred if the child:
•Has a suppressed immune system
•Has a lung disease
•Has close contact with someone who has a suppressed immune system
•Is getting aspirin therapy
•Has a history of an egg allergy
"If your child has another health condition such as diabetes, heart disease or neurological condition talk to your doctor about which form is best for him or her," Polsley said.
To keep children younger than 6 months safe from the flu, he suggests:
•Ensure everyone who touches the baby has washed their hands
•Keep the baby away from people who are known to be sick
Also, mothers who breastfeed give their child protection against many infectious diseases as breast milk has antibodies that are passed from mother to child.
"Younger children may not have the same kind of flu symptoms as adults," said Polsley.
He suggests parents watch out for:
•A high-grade fever up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit
•Chills and shakes with the fever
•Headache and body aches
•Dry, hacking cough
•Vomiting and belly pain
Though the most common way to treat the flu, like most viral illnesses, is with rest and hydration, he suggests contacting your physician immediately if you feel your child may be experiencing severe symptoms.
"I can hear it coming, 'but the flu shot gave me the flu.' This is impossible. You cannot get the flu from a flu shot because the flu shot is made from an inactivated virus," Polsley said. "It is possible to experience some mild side effects, but if you've ever had the flu you will know the side effects are nothing compared to the real illness. People who have had the flu in the past take the least convincing to get a shot because they never want to have it again."
Loyola University Health System