While the spookiness of Halloween is just one night, there’s actually something a lot more frightening lingering among us. That’s right, folks, it’s flu season! A child can be diagnosed with influenza any time of the year, but activity picks up in October and runs through the early spring, with peak infections occurring December through February.
The most common misconception surrounding influenza is that it’s just another cold virus. Once parents understand the severity of influenza and its complications, they see the benefit of influenza vaccination. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends anyone 6 months and older receive the vaccine, as long as there is no contraindication. A study published in 2017 in The Journal of Pediatrics looked at four flu seasons from 2010 to 2014 and found vaccination reduced the risk of death by half in children with a medical condition and by two-thirds among healthy children. That last part is important to highlight: Even healthy children die from influenza.
Influenza virus can infect the upper respiratory tract (runny nose, cough and sore throat) and the lower airways, causing pneumonia. All viruses and bacteria cause inflammatory responses — it’s how our immune system knows to fight an infection. Influenza, however, can trigger an exaggerated response making the child sick enough to be in the hospital with fluid in the lungs and low blood pressure. Influenza is not just a common cold virus. Even with a mild course, children can have high fevers for five days or more, body aches, headaches and sore throat, often making it hard for them to eat and drink.
Another common myth is that the flu vaccine causes the flu. The vaccine is a killed viral vaccine — there’s no way to get the virus from the vaccine. However, it takes two weeks for a protective antibody response, so in the meantime, you could be exposed to the influenza virus and it can make you sick. The best advice is to be vaccinated before flu season begins. The CDC recommends being vaccinated by the end of October each year. Common side effects are soreness at the injection site and feeling a bit sick. Remember, the vaccine tricks your child’s body into thinking it’s sick to make the memory cells and antibodies that will protect your child later.
Lastly, you may think that the flu vaccine does not protect against the flu at all. What’s the point if so many get the flu anyway? Doctors, however, are quick to negate this theory of thinking. Each year, the flu vaccine is formulated to attack the strains of the virus mostly likely to circulate. Even in mismatch years when the virus strains in the vaccine do not match those that are circulating, there are still protective effects. Last year, the overall effectiveness was 40 percent, which means the vaccine reduced a person’s risk of seeking medical care by 40 percent. Therefore, if 10 people were exposed to the influenza virus, four of them would not have to seek medical care because they were vaccinated.
It may not seem like much, a flip of a coin even. However, last year 180 children died from influenza. Out of those who died, 144 were not vaccinated. It is certain that the flu vaccine would have prevented 72 of those children from ever needing to see a doctor and likely reduced the complications associated with influenza in children. During the 2016-17 season, it is estimated that 5.3 million cases of influenza and 85,000 hospitalizations were prevented because people received the flu vaccine.
Everyone 6 months and older should receive the flu vaccine. If your child has never received the flu vaccine before and is 8 years old or younger, two doses will be administered. The first primes their immune system (like saying “Hey, wake up!) and the second, four weeks later provides the protective antibodies. When should they get it? Now! Vaccines work best before exposure.
Nicole Torres, M.D., is a general pediatric physician and an assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.