Should my child get a flu shot? A pediatrician answers

The most recent flu season was the longest in more than a decade. A pediatrician answers the questions of when and why your child should get a flu shot.

With cooler temperatures and changing leaves, you may have pumpkin spice lattes and jack-o’-lanterns on your mind. However, pediatricians at Norton Children’s Medical Group, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine, are gearing up instead for the upcoming flu season, which typically runs from October through May.

Even otherwise healthy children can end up in the hospital with flu. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data on over 1,000 children hospitalized with influenza showed that 45% of those patients had no reported underlying medical conditions. According to the CDC, during the 2019-2020 flu season, only 21% of children eligible for vaccination were fully vaccinated against flu. This percentage was similar to past seasons. With the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing, pediatricians are urging families to get their kids vaccinated for flu. In newly released guidelines, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) strongly recommends children receive their flu vaccinations by the end of October. This includes all eligible kids 6 months and older.

We know that patients at highest risk for complications from the flu include those with lung conditions from being born prematurely, those with asthma or those with reactive airway disease, a condition where asthma is suspected but not yet confirmed. Also at risk are those with neurologic and neurodevelopmental conditions such as seizures or cerebral palsy, and those with chronic medical conditions like obesity, diabetes or a history of immunosuppression.

Last flu season, 188 pediatric deaths were reported to the CDC as a result of influenza, ranging from patients 2 months to 17 years old. Since nearly half of those confirmed pediatric deaths had no underlying medical condition, it is important for all children (not just those at high risk) to be vaccinated.

Flu symptoms in kids

Seasonal influenza can cause mild to severe illness. Common symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • Fatigue

The best protection you can give to your child to prevent the flu is a flu vaccine. While the flu vaccine is not 100% effective (and many remember the 2017 to 2018 season when it was only 38% effective), any protection against the flu is better than no protection. Last year’s flu vaccine was 45% effective. Hopefully this year’s vaccine will match the circulating flu strains even better: This year’s vaccine for children includes two A and B flu virus strains to protect against the four major strains of the virus expected to circulate this season. Every year, a high percentage, up to 70% to 80%, of those children who die from the flu have no protection at all.

Who should get a flu shot?

  • All children 6 months of age and older
  • All caregivers and household contacts to help provide a “cocoon” for those who can’t receive influenza vaccine due to age (less than 6 months) or those with high-risk medical conditions

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When should my child get a flu shot?

  • The CDC recommends vaccinating as soon as flu vaccine is available (or whenever eligible in the case of infants less than 6 months of age).
  • Although peak flu season is January through March, flu season can start in early October.
  • Typically, the flu vaccine takes two weeks before it is effective. It is important to vaccinate before influenza is known to be circulating in the community.

How many flu shot doses does my child need?

  • Children 6 months to 8 years old who are receiving influenza vaccine for the first time or who have received only one dose before July 1, 2020, should receive two doses of influenza vaccine. The second dose should be given at least four weeks after the initial dose.
  • All children 9 and up or younger children who have received at least two doses prior to July 1, 2020, need only one dose of influenza vaccine for this flu season.

Justin M. Morgan, M.D., FAAP, is a pediatrician with Norton Children’s Medical Group – Brownsboro.

Photo credit: Heather Hazzan, SELF Magazine

Norton Children's Medical Group

Norton Children's Medical Group – Brownsboro

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Norton Children’s Medical Group

Norton Children’s Medical Group, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine, offers pediatric primary care at more than 20 locations throughout Louisville and Southern Indiana.
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