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Influenza and Children

group of childrenAll children age 6 months or older should get an influenza (flu) vaccine every year.

Influenza, also called the flu, is a serious illness that leads to thousands of hospitalizations, most in children younger than 5 years of age. It is estimated that an average of 20,000 children under the age of 5 are hospitalized due to flu complications each year.

Every year, some children die from flu. Most of the deaths are in children who have not been vaccinated, and many of the deaths are in healthy children who have no underlying illnesses.

Flu should not be confused with a bad cold or “stomach flu.” Flu is a contagious viral infection of the nose and throat but is much more serious than the common cold. In mild cases, flu causes high fever, head and body aches, coughing for days, severe fatigue for up to two weeks or more.

Anyone can get the flu, but infection rates are highest among children (~20-30 percent annually). Certain people may be at increased risk for developing flu-related complications, including pregnant women and infants younger than 6 months of age, who are too young to be vaccinated. To create a protective “cocoon” of immunity around unvaccinated infants, parents should get older siblings, themselves, and all others who come in close contacts with the baby immunized.

Children age 8 years and younger who have not previously been vaccinated may require two doses of influenza vaccine to be fully protected. Parents and caregivers should talk to their child’s pediatrician or other healthcare professional about how many doses their child may need this season.

How is flu spread?

Flu is spread easily from person to person; when someone who has it sneezes, coughs or even talks, the virus passes into the air and can be breathed in by anyone nearby. People can also become infected by touching something–such as a surface or object–with influenza virus on it and then touching their mouth or nose. Children are major spreaders of flu because they may pass on more of the virus for a longer period of time than adults.

What are the symptoms of flu?

Flu can come on very suddenly and usually includes a high fever with fatigue, aches, headache, cough, sore throat, a runny nose, and muscle pain. Children may have additional symptoms such as earaches, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

How can individuals prevent getting flu?

Annual vaccination is the best way to prevent the flu. The vaccine is safe and effective, and is given to tens of millions of individuals each year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a three-pronged approach: influenza vaccination, use of antiviral medications for treatment or prevention, and use of other measures to decrease the spread of influenza, including hand hygiene, cough etiquette, and staying home from work and school when ill.

Who should be vaccinated?

Everyone age 6 months or older should get a flu vaccine every year.

When should children get vaccinated?

Influenza usually circulates during the fall and winter each year in the US, but it is impossible to tell exactly when activity will begin in a given area. Following vaccination, it takes about two weeks to become fully protected against influenza, so it is important to get immunized as soon as vaccine is available in your community. Getting the influenza vaccine anytime throughout the season continues to be beneficial. The immunity from vaccination continues to be protective throughout the fall, winter, and early spring.

How often do children need to be vaccinated?

The flu vaccine is updated each year to protect against the viruses expected to circulate during the upcoming season. Individuals need to be vaccinated every year because the virus can change and the immune protection from the vaccine can decline over time. Most people only need one vaccine dose, but children age 8 years and younger may need two doses of flu vaccine to be fully protected.

Where can children get vaccinated?

Parents and caregivers should contact their pediatrician or other healthcare professional to request the influenza vaccine for their children, themselves, and other household contacts. Local hospitals, health clinics, and retail stores including pharmacies all offer vaccines. Some schools may hold vaccination clinics.

Additional Resources

Freddie the Flu Detective

Public service announcement (:30 animated video) on how to detect, prevent, and treat the flu from the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases