October 12, 2011
By Claire McCarthy, M.D.
Boston Children's Hospital
Every fall and winter, parents face the question: Should my child get a flu shot?
For many parents, this isn't an easy decision. They worry about risks and side effects, and if the shot is really necessary or worthwhile. If you are one of these parents, here are the reasons your child should get a flu shot every year.
- Influenza can be dangerous even for healthy children. If your child has asthma, diabetes or another chronic health problem, he should absolutely get the flu shot. Influenza (or any significant illness) can be particularly dangerous for children with these conditions.
But even healthy children can get very sick from influenza. Every year many children are hospitalized; some die.
- You can't catch the flu from a flu shot. This is a remarkably common misconception. Everyone seems to know of someone who got sick after getting the flu shot. But it's simply not true; you can't get the flu from a flu shot. The virus used in the shot is not live. Even the live virus in the nasal spray is so weakened that it could only (theoretically) be a problem for someone with a severely damaged immune system. It's important to remember that we give the flu shot during cold and flu season. If someone gets sick after getting it, there's a really good chance it's a coincidence.
- The flu shot is safe. As with any medical treatment, side effects and allergic reactions are possible. But years of experience have shown us that the influenza vaccine is very safe. Millions of people have received the vaccine. Researchers have studied its safety very closely. Although there is no evidence that thimerosal, a common vaccine preservative, is dangerous for children, there are preservative-free preparations available.
- The flu shot works. Every year, scientists make their best prediction as to which strains of influenza will be most common the following year. It's always a guessing game, but the scientists are very good at it.
A recent study from Children's Hospital Boston shows just how well the flu shot prevents the flu. It found that between 2006, when the United States started to recommend the flu shot for all preschoolers, and 2010 when Canada did the same, there were 34% fewer emergency visits for flu-like illness in preschoolers in Boston than there were in Montreal. It's also interesting that there were fewer visits for flu-like illness among older children, which brings me to the last point.
- Your child's flu shot also protects others. Let's face it: Kids are germ-producing machines. They rarely cover their coughs. If they do, it's with their hands the same hands they wipe their noses with, and the ones that don't get washed anywhere near enough. Your child may weather the flu fine, but what about your neighbor's baby that comes to visitor your grandfather, or your aunt with diabetes? They could easily catch it from your child.
It's understandable that you want to be cautious about any treatments for your child. But the flu shot is a safe treatment that can make all the difference in your child's health and the health of everyone around him.
For more information, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's influenza website.
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Claire McCarthy, M.D., a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications, is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. She is an attending physician and Medical Communications Editor at Children's Hospital Boston.