Fall is here — season of golden leaves, pumpkins on front stoops and… influenza. Yes, the flu season has begun and it’s time to think about whether you and your children will get shots.
What Exactly Is Flu?
Flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses, and as anyone who’s ever experienced it knows, it’s far more serious than a mere cold. On top of the coughing and runny nose, symptoms include fever (often a high one), headache, and extreme tiredness. Often, with children, there’s also vomiting and diarrhea.
Children are particularly at risk from the flu. Each year in the U.S., an average of 20,000 kids under 5 are hospitalized from complications arising from the virus, and last year, tragically, 86 children died.
How Can You Protect Your Family?
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the only way to effectively protect yourself and your children from the flu is to get vaccinated. The most current official advice is that all children over the age of 6 months should get annual flu shots.
Dr. Kenneth Gottesman, an attending pediatrician at St Luke’s-Roosevelt hospital in Manhattan, wholeheartedly agrees. “Last year I immunized every kid over 6 months of age in my care,” he says.
Asked what other steps parents can take to protect their kids from flu, he adds: “Close to not very much. Unless you’re going to hide yourself away for a few months, there’s no vitamin, there’s nothing that will prevent you from getting the flu. It’s an extremely contagious condition.”
For babies under the age of 6 months, vaccination is not an option; there is no approved flu shot for newborns. For that reason, the CDC warns that it’s extra important for caregivers and family members of new babies to be immunized, to avoid passing on the virus.
However, Dr. Gottesman says: “It’s rare to see a 2- or 3-month-old with the flu. Which is not to say that they can’t get it — but babies have transplacental immunity, and if their mothers are breastfeeding, that certainly can be a major plus to try to minimize disease contagion over the first few months.”
Parents can take extra precautions by washing hands regularly with soap and water or alcohol-based cleansers, and avoiding contact with sick adults or children.
What Can You Expect If You’re Taking Your Kids to be Immunized?
If they’re 9 years or older, they’ll get one flu shot. Children ages 6 months to 9 years who have never been vaccinated before need two, a month apart. The second shot is the one that provides immune protection, and this only kicks in two weeks after the shot, so it’s a good idea to start the process early. The New York State Department of Health advises people to get vaccinated from October to December, though it’s still worth doing later as flu season tends to peak in February and can last as long as May.
Some side effects from flu shots include swelling at the site of the shot, a low fever, and aches, but according to Dr. Gottesman, “It’s exceedingly rare that I see any reaction of any severity to any of the vaccines we use.”
Many parents are concerned about vaccinations in general, especially following the FDA’s ban on the preservative thimerosal. In fact, as Gottesman acknowledges, the flu vaccine is the only widely used vaccine left that does still contain trace amounts of thimerosal in certain forms. If you are concerned, ask your pediatrician whether their vaccine supply contains thimerosal and request an alternative if it does. One option for children aged 5 and over is LAIV (FluMist®), a nasal spray vaccine that never contained thimerosal. (For more information, visit www.fda.gov/CBER/vaccine/thimerosal.htm).
What about concerns that the vaccines may be ineffective? Each year, different strains of the flu virus circulate around the world, and scientists monitor their progress to determine which viruses to use in vaccines. This is why it’s important to renew your flu shot each year.
Last year there was a problem with mismatched flu vaccine, and as a result flu reached epidemic proportions. The CDC says that vaccines are usually effective against 70-90 percent of flu viruses, but last year they protected against only 40 percent. However, even this weakened protection can result in a milder case of the flu.
What If Your Child Is Unlucky Enough to Get the Flu?
Dr. Gottesman says all you can do is treat the symptoms and keep them comfortable: “Make sure they drink lots of liquids, use Tylenol or Motrin for the fever, but no aspirin. Cough and cold remedies are close to useless.”
Antiviral drugs are available by prescription to lessen the severity of the flu but these must be taken within the first 48 hours of onset and are not approved for children under 1.
Whatever approach you decide to take, here’s to a safe and flu-free winter.
Kirsten Denker is a freelance writer and mother of two living in Brooklyn.