You asked. Elizabeth W. Musil, MD, FAAP, a pediatrician at Olathe Health Pediatrics – Olathe Medical Park and Olathe Health Pediatrics – College Point, answered.
As COVID-19 continues to make headlines, influenza (flu) prevention shouldn’t fall off your radar. Viruses have been unpredictable the last year, beginning with a dip in flu cases (due to masking and social distancing) and most recently, when summer ushered in a Delta variant-induced resurgence of COVID-19 that was accompanied by more cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), croup, and other respiratory and stomach viruses. If this summer is any indication of what’s to come this flu season, it’s more important than ever to get flu shots.
Your Flu Questions Answered
What is the difference between a common cold and the flu?
The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. Colds are also caused by viruses, just different ones from those that cause the flu. With the potential to lead to hospitalization, Intensive Care Unit admission or death, the flu is far more dangerous than the common cold. In the 2019-2020 flu season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 38 million flu cases, 18 million flu-related visits to a healthcare provider, 400,000 flu-related hospitalizations and 22,000 flu-related deaths. Of those deaths, 188 children died, making the 2019-2020 flu season tied with the 2017-2018 season for the highest number of flu-related deaths in kids since the CDC began tracking this in 2004.
How does the flu spread?
The flu spreads through droplets – sneezing, coughing, blowing your nose – and can stay on surfaces for up to a day. So, if someone with the flu touches a surface and you touch it a short time after them, you could become infected. That’s why handwashing and covering you/your child’s mouth when you/they sneeze or cough is so important.
Is it safe to get the COVID-19 vaccine and flu vaccine at the same time?
Yes, it’s safe. Multiple vaccines, including the COVID-19 vaccine, can be administered in the same visit. If you or your child have a strong immune response to vaccines, vaccines could be administered about two weeks apart. Just remember, it takes about two weeks for the body to build up an antibody response.
What are flu symptoms? Are they different from COVID?
Whether it’s fever, chills, sore throat, cough, runny/stuffy nose, headache, stomachache and/or body aches, COVID-19, flu, and the common cold symptoms can look the same. A distinction: the flu is more of a respiratory virus, whereas COVID-19 is sometimes accompanied by vomiting or diarrhea. Flu symptoms can last for up to a week.
When should we get our flu shots?
The American Academy of Pediatricians recommends kids get their flu vaccine as soon as possible this year. For adults, it’s recommended to get vaccinated in October.
Why do I have to get a flu shot every season?
The flu viruses are smart, constantly changing to get around our defenses and make us sick. The CDC works year-round to collect data and determine which strains will be most prevalent year to year. So, unlike the childhood immunizations that generally stay the same, the flu vaccine works to provide the most up-to-date protection for that specific season.
I heard the flu shot doesn’t really work. So why should I get it?
There are lots of misconceptions about the flu shot. Is it 100% effective at preventing the flu? No. Scientists do their best to create a vaccine based on the research they’ve done on the previous year’s flu strains. Although effectiveness does vary year to year, the CDC estimates the flu vaccine reduces your risk of getting the flu by 40-60% when the vaccine is well matched to circulating viruses. It’s also important to note that if you get the flu shot and still get the flu, symptoms will last for a shorter period of time and will not be as severe. You also have a lower risk of flu-related complications (like dehydration, hospitalization, pneumonia, blood infections, etc.).
More, the flu vaccine has been shown to significantly reduce the risk of death in children. A study published in Pediatrics in 2017 showed that between 2010 and 2014, the flu vaccine reduced the risk of flu-related death by 51% among children with other high-risk medical conditions. It also reduced the risk of death in healthy children by 65%! Equally important, getting your child vaccinated protects those around them – older adults who may have weakened immune systems, people with cancer, and babies too young to be vaccinated.
Which kids have to get two doses of the shot and why?
If it’s your child’s first flu season receiving the shot and they are nine years old or younger, two doses will be administered four weeks apart. This helps prime their immune system – the first shot shows their body what the flu viruses look like and the second shot is a reminder to make even more protective antibodies (memory, germ-fighting cells). When a child gets two doses of the flu shot their first season, only one dose is needed for future flu seasons.
My baby is under 6 months old. How can I protect them from getting sick?
Having everyone else in the house (or those around the baby) vaccinated and practicing good handwashing are the best ways to keep your baby safe. If you have older kids in the house, teach them about handwashing, sneezing/coughing into their arms, and trying to avoid kissing the baby if they are sick.
My child is healthy. Do they still need the shot?
Every year there are healthy kids and adults who die from the flu. Getting a flu shot reduces the risk of your child being hospitalized as a result of the flu or its complications. Additionally, it protects those around them – older adults who may have weakened immune systems, people with cancer, and babies too young to be vaccinated.
I get sick every time I get the flu shot. Why should I get it?
Luckily, you cannot get the flu from the flu shot – the influenza virus in the flu shot is inactive (dead). Feeling crummy after you get a shot actually means your immune system is doing its job, working to create antibodies to protect you in the future! When you get a vaccine, an inflammatory response is triggered in your body, a similar type of response like when you get an infection. It’s the same reason kids sometimes get a fever after their childhood immunizations – their immune system is getting to work! So sometimes you may feel feverish or achy after getting a shot, but it’s a small price to pay for how sick you could get if you caught the actual illness. The most common complaint we hear after giving a flu shot is some soreness where the shot was given.
My child tested positive for the flu. What now?!
The only way to diagnose the flu is to do testing at your doctor’s office (nasal swab). Flu complications may include dehydration, pneumonia, sinus infections, ear infections, or blood infections, so proper treatment is important. Since the flu is caused by viruses, antibiotics won’t help! Instead, keep your child comfortable and hydrated. If your child doesn’t want to eat, that’s okay; just remember to push fluids – water, Pedialyte, Gatorade, etc. You can also try things like popsicles or applesauce. In kids two years or older, it’s important they pee at least three times in 24 hours. In kids younger than two years of age, it’s important they pee at least four times in 24 hours. In addition to rest and hydration, Tamiflu may ease symptoms. Children can typically return to school or daycare after about seven days AND when symptoms improve.
Tell me more about Tamiflu. What are the side effects?
Tamiflu is an antiviral medication that may help shorten the duration of symptoms, depending on when it’s started in the course of the illness. It tends to work best when started within the first 48 hours of symptom onset. There are liquid and capsule forms. Sometimes pharmacies run out of the liquid form, but capsules can be opened and sprinkled on applesauce or pudding for kids. This medicine is not appropriate for everyone, so ask a doctor if your child could benefit from it. Like any medication, there are potential side effects, the most common ones being headache, fussiness, and nausea/vomiting/upset stomach. Kids sometimes report hallucinations. If this happens, medication should be stopped immediately.
When can my child return to school/daycare after having the flu?
We typically say the child can return to school or daycare after about seven days AND when symptoms improve.
Call your primary care provider today to schedule your flu vaccine. If you need to find a primary care provider, please call 913-791-4396, or click here.