By Dimpy Bakshi, Pharm.D.
| How to Protect Yourself and Your
Child During the Flu Season
If you are a parent like me, I am
sure that you are strategizing about ways to dodge the flu bullet
this season. As you may know, the term “flu” refers
to influenza viruses, which infect the nose, throat and lungs. According
to the American Academy of Pediatrics, young, healthy children have
a high risk of hospitalization for influenza infections.
Since children touch their noses, eyes and mouths
often without washing their hands regularly, flu viruses spread
easily. Influenza may be spread by droplets that come from the nose
and mouth when coughing or sneezing and then travel through the
air and reach others. Additionally, the virus can be spread by a
person who blows his or her nose, coughs or sneezes on his or her
hands and then touches a common object, such as a door knob. Influenza
viruses can live for several hours (two to eight) outside of the
human body, so the virus can be picked up easily by another set
of hands that touches that doorknob.
When Does the Flu Season
While the flu season starts during the fall, it peaks between December
and March. The best way to protect against the flu is to get vaccinated
every year. Those who were vaccinated last year are not protected
from getting the flu this year, because flu viruses are mutating
constantly. This is why flu vaccines are updated every year to include
the most current strains of the virus.
Although you can get a flu vaccine well into flu
season, it’s best to try to get it earlier—ideally in
October or November. You can even get it as late as January, since
there are still a few months left in the flu season. Once you have
been vaccinated, it takes two weeks for your body to develop the
antibodies that will help fight the virus.
Symptoms of the flu
- Muscle or body aches
- Sore throat
- Runny nose
- Loss of appetite
- Ear ache
How Does the Flu Vaccine
Work and How Effective is it?
The flu vaccine works by stimulating your body to produce antibodies
that will provide protection against the influenza virus. The vaccine
can prevent 66 percent or more influenza infections in young children
when the vaccine strains match or are similar to the particular
flu virus causing the illness. Vaccinating individuals who are regularly
in close contact with children can also help decrease children’s
risks of getting the flu.
Who Should Receive the Flu Vaccine?
As always, the Centers for Disease Control has specific recommendations
regarding administration of the flu vaccine. It recommends that
all children between the ages of six months and five years should
receive the flu vaccine, as should people who care for or live with
children under the age of five. Infants under six months of age
should not receive the flu vaccine but are still at high risk for
flu-related complications. The best way to protect this age group
is to vaccinate everyone around them.
M.D., a pediatrician in Gaithersburg, Maryland strongly advocates
flu vaccinations for all children that meet the criteria for receiving
it. Dr. Durbhakula notes, “Having had one of my sons develop
the flu the year I opted not to give him the flu shot, I will never
make that mistake again.”
The Flu Shot or the Nasal-spray?
The flu shot is an inactivated vaccine containing “killed”
viruses and is given through a needle in the arm. Because the flu
shot is not an activated virus, it does not cause symptoms associated
with the flu, such as coughing or congestion. Children who are receiving
the flu shot for the first time (and those who were vaccinated for
the first time during the previous influenza season, but only received
one dose in that season) should receive a second dose one month
after the first dose this season.
There is a new type of flu shot available this
season that does not contain thimerosol, the preservative that has
been used since the 1930s to prevent the contamination of multi-dose
vials of the flu vaccine. Some parents are concerned about the presence
of thimerosol in childhood vaccines because various vaccine critics
and autism advocacy groups have suggested that it has caused children
to develop autism or other neurodevelopmental disorders. This form
of the vaccine may cost a little more, but is certainly an option
for parents who don’t want to expose their children to thimerosol.
However, there is no scientific evidence to prove that the low levels
of thimerosol in influenza vaccines has had harmful effects.
What can you do to
help prevent the spread of the flu?
- Most important: Get vaccinated.
- Wash your hands frequently and have your kids do the same.
- Carry around alcohol-based hand sanitizer and use it frequently
when outside of your home. Make sure to keep it out of your
- Avoid close contact with anyone whom you suspect has the
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or
sneeze and then throw that tissue away. If you don’t
have a tissue, cough or sneeze into the inside of your arm.
- Avoid touching your nose, mouth or eyes in order to prevent
germs from entering your body.
- Do not share utensils or cups.
- Stay home from work or school when you are sick with the
flu so that others don’t get sick. It is especially
important to keep children at home until they have been without
a fever for at least 24 hours.
- Avoid large crowds during flu season.
Who should NOT receive
the flu shot?
- Infants under six months of age
- Anyone allergic to eggs or egg products
- Anyone who has had a severe reaction to the flu vaccine
in the past
- Anyone with Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS)
- Anyone with a fever
Side effects from the flu shot are rare but include soreness,
redness or swelling at the injection site. A low-grade fever or
muscle aches may also occur but usually don’t last past one
or two days after receiving the vaccination. If a fever or muscle
aches occur, these side effects should not be confused with the
flu. As mentioned earlier, the flu shot is an inactive virus, so
it does not cause the flu.
The second option for the flu vaccine is the nasal-spray
(FluMist®), which is made with live attenuated influenza viruses
or a “weakened” virus. These viruses do not cause the
flu either. FluMist® is approved for use in healthy people ages
2 to 49. The FDA only recently approved FluMist® for use in
healthy two to four year olds; however, it is still not recommended
for pregnant women. Additionally, for children aged two to eight
years, the same rules about receiving two doses of the flu shot
the first time apply to FluMist® as well.
Side effects of the nasal-spray
include runny nose, headache, vomiting, muscle aches and fever (greater
than 100°F in children two to six years of age). Fever is not
a common side effect in adults, but they may experience cough and
sore throat in addition to the aforementioned side effects. FluMist®
does not contain any thimerosol or other preservatives.
Severe, life-threatening allergic reactions are
very rare. Signs of serious allergic reactions include trouble breathing,
hives, wheezing or increased heart rate. These kinds of reactions
would more likely occur in someone who has had a severe reaction
to the flu vaccine in the past or someone allergic to eggs, because
the flu vaccine is grown inside eggs. Make sure to tell your physician/pediatrician
if you or your child is allergic to eggs or egg products, or has
had a serious reaction to the flu vaccine in the past.
What should be done if your child has the flu (after you have called
- Give your child lots of fluids to drink.
- Have your child get lots of rest.
- If necessary, give your child Acetaminophen or Ibuprofen to help
reduce his or her fever or relieve body aches or pains. Recently,
the FDA withdrew infant over-the-counter cough and cold medicines
that combine decongestants, anti-histamines or cough suppressants
with Acetaminophen or Ibuprofen from the market . So for children
under six, be sure to check your medicine cabinet and get rid of
any over-the-counter cough and cold preparations that fit this criteria.
When in doubt, ask your pediatrician.
- Dress your child in layers because he or she may feel warm
one minute and cold the next.
- Use a cool-mist humidifier. Be sure to clean the humidifier
based on the manufacturer’s guidelines to avoid mold growth.
- Use a suctioning bulb to remove excess mucus that can make
it hard for your child to breathe.
- Use over-the-counter saline nose drops to help break up
some of the dry mucus causing nasal congestion. Use a suctioning
bulb afterwards to help remove the loosened mucus.
- Above all, make sure to give your child LOTS of love and TLC!
Who should NOT use
the nasal spray?
- Children under the age of two
- Adults aged 50 years or older
- People with a medical condition that places them at
high risk for complications from influenza, including chronic
heart disease; lung diseases, such as asthma or reactive airways
disease; diabetes or kidney failure; illnesses that weaken
the immune system; or medications that can weaken the immune
- Children under the age of five with a history of recurrent
- Children or adolescents taking aspirin
- People with a history of Guillain-Barré syndrome
- People allergic to eggs or egg products
- People allergic to gelatin, arginine or a medication
- People who have had life-threatening reactions to
previous influenza vaccinations
- Pregnant women
Dimpy Bakshi, Pharm.D. is a clinical pharmacist, providing drug
and other medical information for several specialty biopharmaceutical
products. She has also worked on the pediatric and OB/GYN departments
of a hospital.
ABCDlady does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. See
Back to Top