Pediatrician Seth Webb discusses the importance of flu vaccines

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Words with Webb: The importance of Getting the Annual Flu Vaccine for Children

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With flu season just around the corner, I wanted to take a few minutes to talk about influenza and the importance of getting the annual flu vaccine for your child this year. 

As almost all of you know, influenza is an acute respiratory illness caused by the influenza A and B viruses. It generally occurs during the winter months and extends into the early spring. Symptoms vary by age but generally include an abrupt onset of fever, headache, body aches, and fatigue accompanied by upper respiratory symptoms such as cough, sore throat, and runny nose. Younger children, especially infants and toddlers, may present with less classic symptoms including upset tummy and less prominent respiratory symptoms. As flu vaccines are just now arriving at your local pediatric clinics, it is a great time to come in and get your child vaccinated.

Why do we do the vaccine annually? 

Influenza viruses evolve very quickly, so each year they are studied, looking back at past years, and manufacturers do their best to match protection in the vaccine against strains the research identifies as the potentially most prevalent for the upcoming year. There are traditionally two variations of flu vaccine each year, a trivalent and a quadrivalent. This means that the vaccine contains protection against 3 or 4 strains of flu virus. Your UnityPoint Pediatric clinics in this area will be carrying the quadrivalent vaccine that protects against two influenza A virus strains and 2 influenza B strains. This provides broader protection for the upcoming flu season. 

There are some common concerns that I hear each year during flu season that prevents parents from getting the vaccine.

  1. One concern is that some parents feel “the flu vaccine is not effective so why get it?” This is partially correct. Some years the strains that the vaccine protects against, based on the research done annually, are not the most prevalent strains. Even so, your child’s body will produce antibodies that will better protect them against the flu viruses even if they do contract the flu. 
  2. This leads into another common concern I hear and that is “my child got the flu shot last year and still got the flu.” This does happen from time to time, but remember they were provided with protection that better helped their bodies fight off the virus, so their illness was likely less severe than if they had not received the vaccine. 
  3. A third concern I hear from parents is “my child always gets the flu when they get the vaccine.” It is important to understand why your child may get appear sick in the week or two following the vaccine administration. With all vaccines, your child’s body will “fight” the vaccine so that antibodies are produced. The antibodies are important because these are what will protect against illness, should it occur. With each vaccine, including the influenza vaccine, your child’s immune system is compromised slightly during this process, but this reaction is nothing compared to your child actually contracting influenza. We never want your child to feel sick or uncomfortable but we do want them to protected, especially since influenza is a very serious, even potentially deadly, illness.

Complications associated with flu

Getting the flu can lead to complications such as ear infections, pneumonia and even dehydration. These are generally not very serious and can be treated either by your pediatrician or in the hospital setting. However, there are some serious complications to be aware of and include central nervous system issues such as meningitis, seizures, and so on. They are rare in children but those under the age of 4 or who have pre-existing neurological conditions are at higher risk. Additionally, more serious complications include muscle inflammation and heart issues. These can be very serious and more difficult to treat so prevention – particularly by receiving a flu vaccine each year - is key!

Treatment for Influenza

If your child does get the flu, treatment is mostly symptomatic, however there are anti-viral medications available with the most common being Oseltamivir or Tamiflu. While this medication has its place in helping to treat influenza, it does come with some risks. The medication has to be started in the first 48 hours of symptoms and may help to decrease flu symptoms by a day or 2. There are also side effects to consider, with the most common being nausea and vomiting in roughly 15 percent of those taking the medication. Another common side effect is delirium and behavior changes. If your child does contract influenza this season, talk with your child’s pediatrician regarding the risks and benefits of the medication and come up with the best plan for your child.

Protect Against Flu

The best way to protect you and your child this season is the flu vaccine. The more people we protect, the better off we all will be. If your child does get flu this year, keep them out of school to protect everyone. The second best thing we all can do is wash our hands! Wash, wash, wash! Hand washing is one of the best ways to prevent not only influenza, but all illness!

Call your pediatrician’s office today and schedule a time to get your vaccine and be protected this flu season!