While the winter months bring holidays, joy and excitement, they also bring flu season.
Contrary to popular belief, influenza is a serious illness that causes an average of 20,000 children to be hospitalized each year. Alarmingly, some kids die from the flu annually. In fact, in 2015 there were 87 influenza-related deaths and, in previous years, the death rate was even higher. Though many people are not hospitalized with the flu, it can lead to several missed days of school and work.
Symptoms include a high fever (104-105°F), cough, sore throat, body aches and fatigue. There are secondary illnesses that can occur as a result of influenza — including ear infections, pneumonia and dehydration. Additionally, those with chronic medical conditions such as asthma and diabetes may have worsening symptoms.
Everyone is at risk for contracting influenza, especially children younger than 2, adults 65 years or older, pregnant women and those with certain medical conditions. Even healthy people can get very sick from the flu and spread it to others. Because of these risks, it is imperative that you and your kids receive the influenza vaccination every year.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “An annual seasonal flu vaccine is the best way to reduce the chances that you will get the seasonal flu and spread it to others. When more people get vaccinated, less flu can spread through that community.” In addition, the influenza vaccine minimizes the amount of provider visits, reduces days missed at work and school and prevents flu-related hospitalizations.
The CDC recommends that all children and teens from the ages of 6 months through 18 years of age get a flu vaccine every fall or winter.
The flu vaccine can be administered yearly, starting at six months of age. If your child is younger than nine years old and receiving the flu vaccine for the first time, two shots spaced at least four weeks apart will be required. Once your child has received the two-dose series, only one dose yearly will be needed. Kids nine years old or older will only need one dose regardless of previous influenza vaccine history.
Children younger than six months, those with a history of Guillain-Barre Syndrome and those with an allergy to eggs should not receive the flu vaccine. Individuals, especially family members, should get immunized to protect themselves from contracting the flu and spreading it to those unable to be immunized. While the flu vaccine prevents flu, antiviral drugs can help fight the flu by stopping the virus from reproducing in the body. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that antiviral medications be administered to children with confirmed influenza who are at risk for flu-related complications.
The flu vaccination should be received in early October. This is because it takes about two weeks for the antibodies that protect against the influenza virus to develop in the body. It’s best that people get vaccinated before flu season begins so they are protected before the virus starts to spread within their community. However, this vaccination is offered throughout the entire flu season and is still beneficial even when given later in the year.
New influenza vaccines are created yearly to cover the most common strain of influenza virus for the upcoming season, which means last year’s vaccine may not protect you from this year’s viruses. After receiving the vaccination, your immune system produces antibodies that will protect you from the viruses found in the vaccine. This immune response may also cause a low-grade fever and body aches, but cannot actually give you the flu. In fact, the symptoms experienced after the flu vaccine are much milder than symptoms caused by the actual flu illness. In addition, antibody levels start to decline over time, which is another reason to get a flu shot every year.
Since 2003, influenza vaccinations have been available to two forms: an inactivated influenza vaccine administered via injection into the arm or leg; and a live attenuated influenza vaccine administered via spray inhaled through the nostrils.
While both forms of the influenza vaccination have been closely studied for years, Dr. Joseph Bresee, a flu expert at the CDC, explained in a press release in June 2016 that they “could find no evidence [the spray] was effective.” Based on these findings, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends the discontinuation of the spray. Although the reason for the ineffectiveness of the spray is unclear, the discontinuation highlights the importance of ensuring public health interventions are clearly beneficial. While the flu vaccine protects millions of people every year, evaluating public health interventions such as the flu vaccine helps improve processes and protect the most vulnerable among us. Thus, despite the difficulty the spray termination may present for pediatric offices and other vaccine providers, the focus is always to deliver the best care possible to pediatric patients.
The influenza vaccine is vital to protect yourself, your kids and people around you at risk for serious complications from the flu. Although the vaccine does not guarantee that you won’t get it, it may reduce the severity of symptoms should you get sick. Don’t wait: Make an appointment with your child’s healthcare provider now to protect your family during flu season.
Lacey Eden, MS, NP-C, is a NP in a busy pediatric office in Draper, UT, and an assistant teaching professor in the College of Nursing at Brigham Young University.
Erin Marshall, SN, MA, is a student nurse in the bachelors program at Brigham Young University. She works as a medical assistant in a pediatric office in Provo, UT.