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. 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 each year, but in the U.S. it often occurs from October to May, and usually peaks between December and February.
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 of flu and its complications if they are less than 5 years of age or have chronic health conditions.
Common signs and symptoms of the flu include:
Questioning whether your child has the flu or just a cold? Flu usually comes on suddenly and has more severe symptoms than a cold. Learn more about how to detect and treat flu.
Flu can result in serious complications. Emergency warning signs of flu sickness in children include:
Contact your healthcare provider immediately if you are concerned that your child is in danger from these or other flu complications. If your child gets the flu and is high-risk for complications, your healthcare provider may prescribe antiviral medicines (e.g., Tamiflu).
Read how Every Child By Two’s Executive Director nearly missed the warning signs when her infant son required hospitalization from flu.
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. It’s important to note that it usually takes about two weeks after getting the vaccine for protection to begin.
Children 6 months through 8 years getting vaccinated against the flu for the first time, and those who have only previously gotten one dose of vaccine, should get two doses of flu vaccine this season. These doses must be given at least 28 days apart, so if your child needs two doses of vaccine, begin the process early to help make sure that your child is protected before flu starts circulating in your community. The first dose “primes” the immune system, and the second dose provides immune protection. Children who only get one dose, but need two doses can have reduced or no protection from a single dose of flu vaccine.
Since children under 6 months old cannot be vaccinated, the best way to protect them from flu is to make sure everyone around them is 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.
This season’s flu vaccine protects 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 whether you get a trivalent flu vaccine or a quadrivalent flu vaccine). For the 2017-2018 season, CDC recommends use of injectable/inactivated flu vaccines (IIV) or the recombinant influenza vaccine (RIV). The nasal spray flu vaccine (live attenuated influenza vaccine or LAIV) was found to be ineffective against flu strains in recent years and be used.
Remember, we are all in this together. While the exact effectiveness of the flu vaccine varies each year, we can seriously reduce our children’s chances of getting sick, hospitalized and dying by getting them vaccinated every year. In fact, a recent study published in Pediatrics shows that flu vaccination significantly reduced a child’s risk of dying from flu. The study looked at data from four different flu seasons and found that flu vaccination reduced the risk of death from flu-associated death by half (51 percent) among children with underlying high-risk medical conditions and by nearly two-thirds (65 percent) among healthy children.
Adults (particularly those over 65 years old; those with chronic health conditions like asthma, diabetes and heart disease; and 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.