Influenza

Seasonal influenza (flu) is caused by viruses which infect the respiratory tract (the nose, throat and lungs). The infection spreads quickly through communities as the virus passes from person to person. Sadly, each year in the U.S., more than 20,000 children under the age of 5 are hospitalized and approximately 100 die as a result of the flu.

The flu season is unpredictable, but it often occurs from October to May and usually peaks between December and February, which is why flu vaccine should be given as soon as it becomes available each year.

Flu spreads through the air when people cough or sneeze and people nearby inhale the virus. The flu virus can also be spread to adults and children when a person wipes their eyes or puts their hands in their mouth or nose after touching a surface that has flu virus on it.

Serious complications of flu can result in hospitalization or death, even in healthy children. Children are at particularly high risk if they are less than 5 years of age or have chronic health conditions.

Symptoms

Common signs and symptoms of the flu include:

  • Fever over 100°F (38°C)
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Cough
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sore throat

Questioning whether your child has the flu or just a cold? Flu usually has a sudden onset and has
more severe symptoms than a cold (which is caused by a different virus).

Flu can result in serious complications. Emergency warning signs of flu sickness in children include:

  • Fast breathing or trouble breathing;
  • Bluish skin color;
  • Not drinking enough fluids;
  • Not waking up or not interacting;
  • Being so irritable that the child does not want to be held;
  • Flu-like symptoms improve but then return with fever and worse cough;
  • Fever with a rash;
  • Being unable to eat;
  • Has no tears when crying;
  • Significantly fewer wet diapers than normal.

Contact your healthcare provider immediately if you are concerned that your child is in danger from these or other complications. Learn more about how to detect and treat flu.

Read how Every Child By Two’s Executive Director nearly missed the warning signs when her infant son required hospitalization from flu

Prevention

The best way to prevent the flu is to get the flu vaccine. The CDC recommends an annual flu vaccine for everyone 6 months of age and older as soon as it becomes available each year. Children 6 months to 8 years of age need two doses if they have not been vaccinated in the past. These doses must be given 4 weeks apart in order for your child’s body to be protected against the flu virus. It is therefore especially important to begin the first dose as soon as it becomes available in the season.

To best protect children under 6 months old, it’s important that all of their family members and caregivers be vaccinated.

Note that recent research indicates that those with egg allergy are not at higher risk of allergic reactions from flu vaccines and are recommended to receive an annual vaccination.

The upcoming season’s flu vaccine will protect against the influenza viruses that researchers predict will be most common during the season. This includes an influenza A (H1N1) virus, an influenza A (H3N2) virus, and one or two influenza B viruses, depending on the flu vaccine. Traditional flu vaccines (called “trivalent” vaccines) are made to protect against three flu viruses; an influenza A (H1N1) virus, an influenza A (H3N2) virus, and an influenza B virus. There are also flu vaccines made to protect against four flu viruses (called “quadrivalent” vaccines). These vaccines protect against the same viruses as the trivalent vaccine and an additional B virus strain.

For the 2016-2017 season, CDC recommends use of injectable/inactivated flu vaccines (or IIV) or the recombinant influenza vaccine (RIV). Note that the nasal spray flu vaccine (live attenuated influenza vaccine or LAIV) was found to be ineffective against strains in recent years and should not be used during 2016-2017.

Remember, we are all in this together. While the flu virus is hard to predict, we can seriously reduce our chances of getting sick, hospitalized and dying by getting vaccinated every year. And, by vaccinating ourselves and our loved ones, we can help protect those who are at highest risk of flu complications.

Adults, particularly pregnant women, also need to be vaccinated against the flu every year. Vaccination during pregnancy protects both mothers and their babies.

For more information, visit our Pregnancy section.

To see if your children are up-to-date on their vaccines, look at the CDC’s recommended immunization schedule and talk to your healthcare provider.