Give flu vaccines a shot

As pediatricians who care for kids infected with influenza every winter, we look to fall with some degree of trepidation. As pumpkin spice hits the stores and leaves change, our first influenza cases emerge, ultimately affecting thousands of children throughout the season. This year, the flu season will overlap with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with the potential to cause more illness, missed days of school and work, and hospitalizations. While we eagerly await a vaccine against COVID-19, we are fortunate to have a safe and effective vaccine against influenza.

Influenza is the leading cause of death from a vaccine-preventable illness in the U.S. We care for the full array of children with influenza, from those who have mild symptoms that can be treated in clinics and at home to life-threatening disease that results in children needing breathing tubes in intensive care units. While even healthy kids can get severely ill from influenza, children under age 5 and those with other medical conditions are at the highest risk of needing to be hospitalized. With our young patients in mind, we enthusiastically vaccinate ourselves, our children, and our families, and we encourage our community to do the same.

Children who receive influenza vaccines are less likely to be hospitalized or die from the virus. Additionally, vaccination reduces the likelihood of spreading influenza to family and friends at greatest risk–such as infants, the elderly, and those with pre-existing conditions including lung or heart disease. Getting the flu shot is not just an act of self-preservation; it protects others in our home and in our community.

Injectable flu vaccines are made with pieces of protein from killed viruses, which allows your body to create an immune defense to the flu virus by creating protective antibodies. These antibodies develop about two weeks after vaccination and provide protection should you be exposed later in the season. It is not possible to get infected by influenza from the vaccine itself.

We often hear people express concern that their friend or neighbor contracted influenza despite being vaccinated or that the vaccine made them sick. Since the timing of vaccination each fall overlaps with the circulation of hundreds of viruses, people can become infected with other viruses around the same time that they receive the flu shot, causing them to mistakenly attribute their illness to the vaccine. Occasionally, people receive the flu shot and are exposed to the flu before their body has had time to develop antibody protection, causing them to believe the vaccine was not effective. Lastly, some people do become ill with influenza despite receiving the vaccination, but their course of illness is much less severe than if they had not been vaccinated.

Low-grade fevers after vaccination can be a sign of the body’s natural and healthy response to sensing broken pieces of a virus. A minority of people experience a headache or muscle aches after vaccination. The most common side effect of vaccination is temporary redness, soreness, or hardness at the injection site, affecting less than 1 in 5 people who are vaccinated. Side effects are much less severe than symptoms associated with true influenza illness, and we offer parents the option of managing these symptoms with Tylenol or ibuprofen until they improve, which should be within 48 hours.

We love being pediatricians and caring for your kids, and our goal is to keep everyone healthy and out of the hospital during the pandemic. Therefore, as parents and physicians, and in accordance with the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics, we hope you, too, will get your family flu shots this year and continue to practice social distancing, good hand washing, and wear masks when in public to keep us all safe and well.

Please make it a goal to get your family vaccinated against the flu before the end of October. This will give you protection through what is usually the peak of flu season and further into the spring.

Sarah Swenson, Trisha K. Paul, Zachary R. Shaheen, and Marta Michalska-Smith are pediatricians.

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