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Flu vaccine 101: Answers to parents' common questions

By Dr. Tanya Altmann Break out the tissues – it’s flu season! Day care facilities and classrooms will soon be filled with sick children performing the music of cough cough, sneeze sneeze, achoo! So how do you keep your children safe from the common cold and flu this winter?For the common cold, there’s no magic pill. The best prevention is simply frequent hand washing along with plenty of sl

By Dr. Tanya Altmann

Break out the tissues – it’s flu season! Day care facilities and classrooms will soon be filled with sick children performing the music of cough cough, sneeze sneeze, achoo! 

So how do you keep your children safe from the common cold and flu this winter?

For the common cold, there’s no magic pill. The best prevention is simply frequent hand washing along with plenty of sleep, exercise and a healthy diet.

To avoid the flu, there’s a less time-consuming but very effective answer: the flu vaccine.

Here are the most common questions parents are asking this year about the flu vaccine. 

1.  Who should get flu vaccine?

Everyone 6 months of age or older should receive the flu vaccine. If you have a baby younger than 6 months of age, you can protect him from catching the flu by vaccinating everyone else in your house. So roll up your sleeve (or take a big sniff) to protect your child.

2. What’s the difference between the flu shot and the flu mist?

There are two types of flu vaccines:

The flu shot is an inactivated or killed virus vaccine. The flu shot can be give to anyone 6 months of age and older, even if you have a chronic medical condition.

The nasal-spray flu vaccine, called flu mist, is made with live, weakened flu viruses.  The flu mist is a nice option for healthy people 2-49 years of age.  Many of my patients and my own boys prefer the flu mist because it’s not a shot.  Even my husband chose the mist this year. 

There are some people who cannot get flu mist: If you are pregnant, have a history of asthma or wheezing or have a chronic medical condition such as heart or lung disease you should get the shot, not the mist.

3.  Does this year’s flu vaccine cover H1N1?

Yes.  The flu vaccine is updated each year to combat the influenza virus that changes so often. This year there is only one flu vaccine that contains two strains of Influenza A (H1N1 and H3N2) and Influenza B.

It takes up to two weeks for protection to develop after the shot and protection lasts about a year.

4.  Can you catch the flu from the flu vaccine?  Are there any side effects?

Contrary to popular belief, you can’t catch the flu from the flu vaccine.  The flu shot is a killed virus and other than a sore arm, side effects are rare.  The viruses in the nasal-spray vaccine are weakened so you will not get the flu or severe flu symptoms. Some people report mild cold symptoms and rarely a child will have a fever after the vaccine.  My office has already given 1,500 flu vaccines this season and we have not had any serious side effects or calls from parents reporting side effects or symptoms after the vaccine.

5. Why do some kids need two doses?

For children under age 9, if this is the first year your child is receiving the flu vaccine, if he didn’t receive two doses of the seasonal flu vaccine a prior year or if he didn’t receive at least one dose of the H1N1 flu vaccine last season, he needs two doses of this year’s flu vaccine, given at least four weeks apart.  One bit of good news: The flu vaccine can be given at the same time as other childhood immunizations, so it won’t put your little one behind schedule.

 6. What are symptoms of the flu?

The flu can cause fever, cough, sore throat, headache, chills and muscle aches.  Most are sick for a few days to a week, but some people get much sicker and may even need to be hospitalized.  Believe it or not, the flu still causes thousands of deaths each year. 

7.   Can I get the flu vaccine if I have an egg allergy?

Both the flu shot and the flu mist use egg protein in the production process.  The vaccine contains a very tiny amount of egg protein, so small that most patients with an egg allergy tolerate the vaccine without any reaction.  If you or your child has an egg allergy, an allergist can administer a small amount of the vaccine to see if there is any allergic reaction.  If there is no allergic reaction, they will then give you the rest of the flu vaccine. 

8.  Can I get the flu vaccine if I am pregnant or breast-feeding?

Definitely!  Pregnant women are at a higher risk of having complications if they catch the flu so if you are pregnant, ask your Ob for a flu shot right away. Breast-feeding women can get either the inactivated flu shot or the life flu nasal spray vaccine.  Nursing women will help protect their baby from catching the flu by breast-feeding and getting vaccinated.

 9.  Can I get flu mist if I am around people with weakened immune systems?

In most cases you can, for example, if you have a newborn in the house or a family member who takes steroids or who has HIV.  If you have a family member with a severely weakened immune system, such as somebody who is on chemotherapy or has recently undergone a bone marrow transplant, than it’s best to opt for the flu shot.  If you have any questions, talk to your doctor.

10. Other ways to prevent illness this winter?

The best way to stay healthy this flu season is to make sure the whole family gets flu vaccines, washes their hands, eats healthy, exercises, gets plenty of sleep and gets regular checkups. And make sure to see your physician if you have questions.

Dr. Tanya Remer Altmann is a best-selling author, parenting expert and media spokesperson, a working mother and UCLA-trained pediatrician who practices in Southern California. Visit her website at Dr.Tanya.com.

Is your family prepared for flu season? What steps have you taken? Watch the video and share your thoughts in the comment section below.