As COVID-19 continues to make headlines, influenza (flu) prevention shouldn’t fall off your radar. Viruses have been unpredictable the last year, beginning with a dip in flu cases (due to masking and social distancing) and most recently, when summer ushered in a Delta variant-induced resurgence of COVID-19 that was accompanied by more cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), croup, and other respiratory and stomach viruses. If this summer is any indication of what’s to come this flu season, it’s more important than ever to get flu shots.
Your Flu Questions Answered: The Basics
What is the difference between a common cold and the flu?
The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. Colds are also caused by viruses, just different ones from those that cause the flu. With the potential to lead to hospitalization, Intensive Care Unit admission or death, the flu is far more dangerous than the common cold. In the 2019-2020 flu season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 38 million flu cases, 18 million flu-related visits to a healthcare provider, 400,000 flu-related hospitalizations and 22,000 flu-related deaths. Of those deaths, 188 children died, making the 2019-2020 flu season tied with the 2017-2018 season for the highest number of flu-related deaths in kids since the CDC began tracking this in 2004.
How does the flu spread?
The flu spreads through droplets – sneezing, coughing, blowing your nose – and can stay on surfaces for up to a day. So, if someone with the flu touches a surface and you touch it a short time after them, you could become infected. That’s why handwashing and covering you/your child’s mouth when you/they sneeze or cough is so important.
Flu and COVID-19 Questions
Is it safe to get the COVID-19 vaccine and flu vaccine at the same time?
Yes, it’s safe. Multiple vaccines, including the COVID-19 vaccine, can be administered in the same visit. If you or your child have a strong immune response to vaccines, vaccines could be administered about two weeks apart. Just remember, it takes about two weeks for the body to build up an antibody response.
What are flu symptoms? Are they different from COVID?
Whether it’s fever, chills, sore throat, cough, runny/stuffy nose, headache, stomachache and/or body aches, COVID-19, flu, and the common cold symptoms can look the same. A distinction: the flu is more of a respiratory virus, whereas COVID-19 is sometimes accompanied by vomiting or diarrhea. Flu symptoms can last for up to a week.
When should we get our flu shots?
The American Academy of Pediatricians recommends kids get their flu vaccine as soon as possible this year. For adults, it’s recommended to get vaccinated in October.
I heard the flu shot doesn’t really work. Why should I get it?
There are lots of misconceptions about the flu shot. Is it 100% effective at preventing the flu? No. Scientists do their best to create a vaccine based on the research they’ve done on the previous year’s flu strains. Although effectiveness does vary year to year, the CDC estimates the flu vaccine reduces your risk of getting the flu by 40-60% when the vaccine is well matched to circulating viruses. It’s also important to note that if you get the flu shot and still get the flu, symptoms will last for a shorter period of time and will not be as severe. You also have a lower risk of flu-related complications (like dehydration, hospitalization, pneumonia, blood infections, etc.).
More, the flu vaccine has been shown to significantly reduce the risk of death in children. A study published in Pediatrics in 2017 showed that between 2010 and 2014, the flu vaccine reduced the risk of flu-related death by 51% among children with other high-risk medical conditions. It also reduced the risk of death in healthy children by 65%! Equally important, getting your child vaccinated protects those around them – older adults who may have weakened immune systems, people with cancer, and babies too young to be vaccinated.
Which kids have to get two doses of the shot and why?
If it’s your child’s first flu season receiving the shot and they are nine years old or younger, two doses will be administered four weeks apart. This helps prime their immune system – the first shot shows their body what the flu viruses look like and the second shot is a reminder to make even more protective antibodies (memory, germ-fighting cells). When a child gets two doses of the flu shot their first season, only one dose is needed for future flu seasons.
My baby is under six months old. What safety measures should I take?
Having everyone else in the house (or those around the baby) vaccinated and practicing good handwashing are the best ways to keep your baby safe. If you have older kids in the house, teach them about handwashing, sneezing/coughing into their arms, and trying to avoid kissing the baby if they are sick.
My child tested positive for the flu. What now?!
The only way to diagnose the flu is to do testing at your doctor’s office (nasal swab). Flu complications may include dehydration, pneumonia, sinus infections, ear infections, or blood infections, so proper treatment is important. Since the flu is caused by viruses, antibiotics won’t help! Instead, keep your child comfortable and hydrated. If your child doesn’t want to eat, that’s okay; just remember to push fluids – water, Pedialyte, Gatorade, etc. You can also try things like popsicles or applesauce. In kids two years or older, it’s important they pee at least three times in 24 hours. In kids younger than two years of age, it’s important they pee at least four times in 24 hours. In addition to rest and hydration, Tamiflu may ease symptoms. Children can typically return to school or daycare after about seven days AND when symptoms improve.
Elizabeth W. Musil, MD, FAAP is a pediatrician at Olathe Health Pediatrics – Olathe Medical Park and Olathe Health Pediatrics – College Point. Need a flu shot? Have more questions? Find an Olathe Health primary care provider close to home, or attend a free flu shot clinic.