The flu, also known as influenza, is more dangerous than the common cold for children and poses a serious threat to the health and well-being of children and their families each year. Children commonly need medical care because of the flu, especially before they reach the age of five, and each year an average of 20,000 children under the age of five are hospitalized because of flu complications.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that since 2010, flu-related hospitalizations among children younger than five years ranged from 7,000 to 26,000 in the United States.
While relatively rare, some children die from flu each year. Since 2004-2005, flu-related deaths in children reported to CDC during regular flu seasons have ranged from 37 deaths to 171 deaths. Severe flu complications are most common in children younger than two, and children with chronic health problems, like asthma and diabetes, are at especially high risk of developing serious flu complications.
Symptoms of the flu include fever, headache, tiredness, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle aches and nausea. Vomiting and diarrhea also can occur and are much more common among children than adults.
Prevent the spread of the flu
The main way the flu is spread from person to person is through the coughs and sneezes of an infected person. A transfer can also occur when a person touches their own nose or mouth after coming into contact with infected droplets, nose drainage or saliva from an infected person.
Washing your hands is the best way to prevent the spread the flu after such contamination. Teaching your child to cover his or her nose and mouth when sneezing or coughing and to wash his or her hands immediately after coming into contact with any infected fluids, including their own, will help them keep both themselves and others safe from infection.
Newly infected adults and caregivers are able to spread the flu as early as one day before showing symptoms. They will continue to be contagious up to seven days after the symptoms have begun.
If your child develops a fever (100°F or higher under the arm, 101°F or higher orally, or 102°F or higher rectally), chills, cough, sore throat, headaches or muscles aches, keep your child at home until their temperature has been normal for 24 hours without the need for fever-reducing medicine.
Remind your child to cover their mouth when coughing or sneezing to protect others. You may also want to send facial tissues and alcohol-based wipes or gels with your child for use at school.
Get a flu shot
Vaccination is the best method for preventing the flu and its potentially severe complications in children. The CDC is now recommending that everyone six months of age and older get a yearly flu vaccination.
The CDC strongly recommends that the following people in contact with certain groups of children get a flu vaccine in order to protect the children in their lives from the flu:
- Those who are close contacts of children younger than five (people who live with them),
- Out-of-home caregivers (nannies, day care providers, etc.) of children younger than five,
- People who live with or have other close contact with a child of any age with a chronic health problem (asthma, diabetes, etc.), and
- All health care workers.
For information about other people recommended for vaccination, either because they are at high risk for serious, flu-related complications or because they are contacts of high-risk people, please visit www.cdc.gov/flu.
The groups of children listed below are at increased risk for flu complications.
- Children younger than six months old
- Children between the ages of six months and five years
- Children six months and older with chronic health problems
Yearly flu vaccination should begin as soon as vaccine is available, ideally in October, but vaccinations are available throughout the flu season, which usually peaks in January. Because flu viruses change every year, the vaccine is updated annually. So even if you or your children got a flu vaccine last year, you and your children both still need to get a flu vaccine this season to be protected. If October and November slip by and you haven’t gotten your vaccinations, get vaccinated in December or later.
It is especially important for children of six months to nine years of age who are getting a flu vaccine for the first time to receive the vaccine as early as possible. This is because these children will need the two doses of vaccine to be spread apart by a minimum of 28 days.
If possible, the first dose should be given as soon as vaccine becomes available around October. The second dose should be given soon after the 28-day period has passed. The first dose “primes” the immune system, but it is the second dose that provides immune protection.
Children receiving the vaccine for the first time that only get one dose can have reduced or even no protection from the flu. Please note that it usually takes about two weeks after the second dose for protection against the flu to begin, so be sure to schedule the second dose as early as you can after the 28-day period.
There are antiviral drugs for children aged one year and older that can reduce flu symptoms and help a child get better more quickly, but these drugs need to be approved by a doctor. They should also be started during the first two days that a child is sick for them to work best. Your doctor can discuss with you if these drugs are right for your child.
Many private doctors and parish health units provide immunizations. Call your health care provider or parish health unit to make a vaccination appointment. You can also check the Shots for Tots website for immunization outreach efforts in your area.