Flu shot! Get your flu shot!

By: Joseph Mechak, MD
It is that time of year again… flu vaccine season!  With our flu program ramping up, we wanted to answer a few FAQs and give you some reliable information about this year’s flu vaccine(s).  We hope that this gets you prepared (and excited!) to get this year’s flu vaccine.
First, what is the flu?
Influenza (the flu) is a viral respiratory illness that usually peak in the early winter months – but the season can be variable and unpredictable.  Symptoms include fever, cough, congestion, chills, malaise (the ‘feel bads’), and a host of other symptoms. 
Why do we care so much about the flu?
The flu is more problematic than other respiratory viruses. It is highly contagious and easily spread from person to person. There is also a high complication rate with the flu.  Some complications include pneumonia, dehydration, asthma exacerbation, and others. These complications can require hospitalization, sometimes even to the ICU (intensive care unit).  Sadly, it can also lead to death. During the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons there were 187 and 129 pediatric deaths in the United States related to the flu.
Who is at highest risk?
Children at highest risk of complications from the flu include:

  • Children under 5 years old, especially those under 6 months old
  • Children that were born premature
  • Children with underlying medical problems like asthma, lung disease, heart disease, cerebral palsy, diabetes, or other chronic medical conditions
  • Children of Native American or Alaskan heritage.

What is the best way to protect my child?

  • Get your family the flu vaccine!
  • Get your family the flu vaccine!
  • Get your family the flu vaccine!

How does the flu vaccine work?
A vaccine is a degraded or weakened virus that is injected into your child’s body. Their body recognize these components as foreign or bad, mounts an attack, and make antibodies against them.  These pre-made antibodies are then able to swiftly respond to an exposure to the real flu virus. This will hopefully prevent your child from being infected, or will at least shorten the duration of symptoms, reduce the risk of complications, and lead to a milder course of illness.
Why do I need a flu vaccine every year?
The flu is tricky.  There are many different strains or versions of the flu.  They are different enough from each other that antibodies against one strain do not work against other strains.   Because of this, our bodies cannot develop an immunity or protective memory  like it does with other viruses.  Active flu strains change from year to year, so we need a new vaccine every year to protect against the expected active strains. The CDC and vaccine producers use historical trends, data from the southern hemisphere (where it is winter now), and other sources to predict which strains will be active in a given year.  They then make vaccines based on these highly educated predictions.  
Who can get the flu vaccine?
The flu shot is approved for all children 6 months of age and older. Children under 8 years old who are getting the flu vaccine for the first time need 2 doses, 1 month apart.  All other children need just 1 dose per year.
When should I get the flu vaccine?
Now! Like we said earlier, the flu season in unpredictable.  We sometimes see the flu as early as October. It takes 2-3 weeks to mount a full immune response to the vaccine.  We wanted to make sure your child’s immune system is primed up for whenever the flu decides to come.   So, in our opinion, the earlier the better!  Studies over the past few years have shown that immunity from the flu shot lasts up to 12 months.
Is the FluMist available this year?
Yes. The flu nasal spray, or FluMist, is available this year.  For the past several years, the CDC and AAP recommended against the FluMist because it was not as effective as the flu shot. This year, early studies show that they work equally effectively. The AAP and the CDC state that they have ‘no preference’ between the flu shot and FluMist this year.  Please be aware that there is a very limited supply of FluMist in the United States this year.  We will carry some doses, but it will be a very limited supply.  
Who can get the FluMist?
Most children older than 2 years old can get the FluMist.  You/your child should not get the FluMist if your child:

  • is less than 2 years old
  • has a history of asthma or wheezing
  • is taking aspirin or other salicylic acid-containing medications  
  • has with a weakened immune system
  • has had an allergic reaction to the FluMist in the past.

Can the flu vaccine cause the flu?
No. The flu vaccine does not give you the flu.  The flu vaccine may, however, give you ‘flu-like symptoms.’  The flu vaccine revs up your immune system to make the flu antibodies.  This immune response can cause some malaise (the feel bads), headache, and abdominal pain.  Other side effects include injection site soreness and redness. All of these side effects are actually quite infrequent, and should be short-lived.
My child has an egg allergy, can they get the flu vaccine?
Yes* (with a few exceptions).  It is true that egg proteins are used in the development of the flu vaccine.  Many studies have shown that flu vaccine is safe in children with a mild or moderate egg allergy. These children do not require any special accommodations or additional observation.  If you child had an anaphylactic reaction to eggs (ie. received EpiPen, had lip or tongue swelling, or needed additional medications or support in the hospital),  you should discuss this with your doctor prior to receiving the flu shot. 
How can I get by flu vaccine at Potomac Pediatrics this year?
We have started to offer flu shots to patients, siblings, and parents at all Well Child Checks and some sick visits (depending on symptoms).  We are also hosting a number of ‘Flu Clinics’ throughout the fall. You can find the schedule and more information on our website (click here).  Here is a quick link to our September Flu Clinic schedule.  We do not have any doses of the FluMist yet. Keep an eye on the website for updates.
Trusted Resources:
HealthyChildren.org – The Flu
HealthyChildren.org – Prepare for Flu Season
HealthyChilden.org – A guide to flu for children with chronic health conditions
AAP.org- Vaccine Recommendations for the 2019-2020 flu season
CDC.gov – Flu guide for children