Just like that, another flu season is upon us. Flu season typically begins in late fall, peaks in January and February, and may last until late spring. While the flu can make anyone feel pretty miserable, it’s especially hard on children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that more than 20,000 children are hospitalized each year due to complications from influenza, and last season 147 died from it.
What makes the flu such a serious health risk is that it changes a bit every season, with strains mutating and adapting. Some years the strain is relatively mild and other years it causes severe symptoms and increased mortality. Even though you may have had the flu several years ago, you can always catch it again. The virus is highly contagious and affects the respiratory system, causing fever, chills, cough, sore throat, runny nose, body aches, headaches and fatigue.
The best defense against the flu
Without any doubt, the best defense against the flu is an annual flu vaccine. The earlier you can get it, the better, since the vaccine generally takes about two weeks before it is fully effective. Everyday habits like washing your hands and avoiding close contact with those who are sick are important as well. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth to keep germs from spreading, and make sure to clean and disinfect surfaces and objects you touch.
One major change for this flu season that all parents need to be aware of is the CDC has recommended against using the nasal flu vaccine. This will obviously impact many children, as the CDC estimates that nearly one-third of all kids who receive flu vaccinations in the United States use the nasal spray.
So, what’s behind this change? The CDC studied data and statistics from the past three years and concluded that the nasal flu vaccine simply hasn’t been as effective as the flu shot. This was especially notable this past flu season when the nasal vaccine was less than 5 percent effective (compared to the flu shot, which was more than 60 percent effective).
Flu vaccines are the best way to prevent the flu. However, flu strains are constantly changing so each year there is some variability in how well the vaccines work. In other words, the flu is a moving target, and it was becoming clear that the nasal flu vaccine – in its current state – was not an effective weapon against it.
For now, this recommendation is only for the upcoming flu season. The CDC will review the new data again next year, investigate why the nasal spray became less effective over the years and whether it can be made more effective with some adjustments. Then it will make another recommendation. In the meantime, please keep the following guidelines in mind as we prepare for another flu season.
Who should be vaccinated?
All individuals over 6 months of age — with rare exceptions — should be vaccinated. Unfortunately, the vaccine is not effective in infants younger than 6 months. That is why it is important that other household members get the flu shot so they don’t expose an infant. It also helps minimize the chance of spreading the flu to family, friends or co-workers who may be elderly or have a medical condition that makes them more vulnerable to the flu or unable to get vaccinated themselves.
How is the vaccine given?
As stated above, the most common and effective method of delivering the flu vaccine is a shot in the arm.
Is the flu vaccine safe?
The vaccine is completely safe and highly effective. Most brands of flu vaccine do not contain any mercury. When it is present, it is in the form of thimerosal, a preservative used in multidose vials. Extensive research has shown that thimerosal does not cause developmental conditions like autism.
Additionally, the vaccine cannot give you or your child the flu. While there may be some side effects, including flu-like symptoms — and it is possible for some people who get the vaccine to still come down with the flu — the vaccine itself does not result in the flu.
I often have parents tell me, “We don’t get the flu shot because we never get the flu.” Just because you may never have had a serious case of the flu is not a good reason to not get a flu shot. Think of it like home insurance. Just because you’ve never had a fire doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get insurance. As stated previously, the flu can vary greatly in its severity from year to year and it’s hard to predict when the next pandemic of a particularly severe strain will appear.
There are also some brands of flu shot that are “egg” free for those with allergies. But only people with a severe, life-threatening egg allergy need that special vaccine.
What if you get the flu?
If you or your child do get the flu, make sure to take any antiviral drugs prescribed by your doctor as instructed. Check with your doctor/pediatrician to see if an antiviral drug would be indicated or helpful. This can sometimes make the difference between a milder illness versus a more serious one. It’s also important to rest and drink plenty of fluids.
Perhaps most importantly, please do not try to tough it out and go to work or send your child to school if they are sick. Staying home will keep the virus from spreading.
Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin has primary care offices throughout southeast Wisconsin, including an office in Cedarburg. Find a pediatrician near you.
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