Written By: Dr Niki Tracy
It’s that time of year again - the days are getting shorter, the weather is getting cooler, and all the kids are coughing and sniffling - flu season is here!
While flu infections have been down in the last few years thanks to COVID, health authorities are expecting a big surge in flu infections this year. As such, it’s a good time to consider having your flu vaccine if you haven’t had one already.
What is the flu vaccine?
The flu vaccine is an annual shot that helps protect against some of the most common strains of influenza virus. It is made up of an inactivated virus and works by stimulating the body’s immune system to create antibodies that can help protect against flu infection. It is a very safe and effective way to help prevent the flu and its complications.
Do I need to get the flu vaccine every year?
Yes! Everyone should have a flu shot every year. The circulating influenza viruses change from year to year, so the flu vaccines are updated for each flu season.
Protection from your flu vaccine also wanes over time so it is important to have your flu shot each year to maintain the best level of protection against flu infections.
Why should children be vaccinated?
The flu vaccine is an easy and safe way to protect your kids from illness. Children should be vaccinated against the flu for the same reason adults should—it helps protect them from becoming sick and suffering complications from flu infection. Children under 5 years old are especially at risk and more likely to have serious flu-related complications.
Flu vaccines help to reduce the need for doctor visits, missed school days, and absences from work. If you do get the flu after being vaccinated, you will likely have milder symptoms and a shorter duration of illness than those who did not have the flu vaccine.
In addition, if your child is vaccinated, it can help protect those around them, including people who are at higher risk of complications from the flu, like people with weakened immune systems, older adults, and young babies who cannot be vaccinated yet.
This winter season the flu, Covid, and RSV are all circulating together in the community. Having the flu vaccine lower your chances of catching a combination of the flu, Covid, and RSV infections at the same time.
When should I have my flu vaccine?
In Hong Kong, flu season generally runs from January to April and July to August. The flu vaccine takes time to become effective so it’s best to get vaccinated early - before the flu virus is circulating in your community.
What age should my child get the flu vaccine?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all children 6 months and older get a flu vaccine every year.
Babies less than 6 months old have a higher risk of developing complications from the flu but they are unfortunately too young to have a flu shot. The best way to protect them from flu infection is by getting vaccinated yourself and ensuring your family and friends are vaccinated as well.
How long will it take for my child to develop immunity to the flu?
It typically takes 2 weeks after a flu vaccination for your child to build immunity against the flu. After they receive the vaccine, they should be protected against the most common strains of influenza virus.
Why do children need to have 2 flu shots?
If your child is less than 9 years old, and has not had the flu shot before, they will need two doses. The second dose should be given at least 4 weeks after the first dose. This is due to their developing immune systems. The first dose “primes” the immune system and the second dose raises antibody levels to help improve protection against infection with the flu. Without the second dose, your child may not be adequately protected against the flu.
For children ages 9 years and older, only 1 dose of the flu vaccine is required.
Can my child get a nasal spray flu vaccine instead?
The nasal spray flu vaccine is a good alternative for children who are afraid of having vaccines. It is quick, painless, and easy to administer. If your child is 2 years or older, ask your pediatrician about the nasal flu vaccine. The most common side effects are runny nose and nasal congestion, but these are usually quite mild.
If your child has certain health conditions, your doctor will not be able to recommend the nasal spray for your child. Consult your pediatrician to determine which type of flu vaccine is best for your child.
What are some of the side effects of the flu shot for babies and toddlers?
While children may have some side effects from the flu vaccine, these are usually quite mild. In fact, children are more likely to experience severe effects from the flu itself than from the vaccine.
The most common side effects of the flu vaccine are feeling tired, headaches and body aches, and gastrointestinal symptoms. Your child may also have mild flu-like symptoms, like fever and cough. These usually last one to two days and can be managed with over-the-counter medications like paracetamol or ibuprofen, both of which are safe for children. Rarely, a more serious allergic reaction can occur, and it is important to be alert for signs of this. If your child continues to feel unwell, you should seek out medical advice.
It is important to remember that these side effects are mild and temporary, and they are far outweighed by the protection the vaccine provides against the more serious risks of the flu.
What are complications of the flu?
The flu is a more serious illness than the common cold. Children, especially those under 5 years old, are more likely to need medical care. Flu-related complications can include dehydration, pneumonia, ear and sinus infections, and exacerbation of chronic health problems like asthma. Rare complications may include encephalitis and death.
Can I give my child the flu shot if he/she is sick or has a fever?
If your child simply has a mild cough or runny nose, they can usually go ahead and have the flu vaccine after a checkup with your pediatrician.
It is not recommended to give a flu shot to a child who has a fever. The flu shot should be given when the child is healthy. If your child has a fever, wait until the fever is gone before getting a flu shot.
Can my child have the flu vaccine and Covid vaccine at the same time?
Yes, it is safe to receive both the flu vaccine and Covid vaccines on the same day. Do note that the vaccines will usually be given at different sites.
What can I do to prepare my child for the flu vaccination?
Here are a few tips to help make the vaccination experience easier for both you and your child.
- Talk to your child about the importance of getting a flu vaccination, what to expect before, during, and after.
- Make sure your child is well-rested and has had something to eat before the vaccine.
- Try to keep your child calm and relaxed.
- Make sure the child is wearing something comfortable and loose that can easily be rolled up for the shot.
- Bring a favorite toy or distractions such as an iPad or a book to keep your child’s mind off the vaccine.
- Remember to stay positive and don’t forget to praise your child after the injection!
Are there other ways to protect my child from the flu?
Simple infection control measures can lower your risk of catching the flu.
- Clean your hands frequently with either soap and water or an alcohol based hand sanitizer
- Teach your child to cover their nose and mouth when they sneeze or cough and wash their hands afterwards
- Avoid close contact with sick people
- If your child is sick, you should keep them at home until at least 24 hours after the fever has gone
Vaccination is the best way to protect your loved ones from the flu and flu-related complications. As parents, there are a lot of tough decisions to make every day. This can often be made even harder with conflicting information. We hope that the information in this article helps you to make an informed decision on whether your child should be vaccinated against the flu.
If you have any other questions or concerns about the flu vaccinations, our OT&P paediatricians, Dr Niki Tracy and Dr Chris Chan, are available to answer them.