Children with chronic illnesses--such as heart disease, allergies, cystic fibrosis, asthma or diabetes--are most at risk of serious complications from the flu. "Vaccinate any child who would have problems if he or she were to come down with the flu," says Dr. Alan Organ, a pediatrician in Overland Park, Kansas. In addition, infants with older siblings are at higher risk of viral infection, so vaccinate older children to reduce your infant's exposure. (But nursing mothers transfer flu immunity to their infants, if the mother is immune.) It doesn't matter if the shot is given early in the flu season or later. It takes a child about two weeks after the shot to build immunity.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone over the age of 6 months get a flu shot. Even healthy, school-age children who can usually withstand an upper respiratory cold can experience complications from the flu, and they can spread the illness to others who are at greater risk.
Kids Who Shouldn't Get Flu Shots
Children with a severe allergy to chicken eggs, or who have had a severe reaction to a previous influenza vaccination, should not receive flu shots.
Children younger than 6 months of age should not receive flu shots until they are older.
Children who are moderately to severly ill or who have recently been exposed to an illness like chicken pox (and are not immunized for that) should not be exposed to a vaccine for a few weeks.
Side effects from shots should be minimal: a slight temperature under 101 degrees, headache, aches, soreness at the site of the shot. If reactions are severe, such as seizures, a high temperature, vomiting or convulsions, consult your physician immediately.
Severe reactions may occur up to two weeks after an immunization. Connaught Laboratories asked doctors to report any reactions within 30 days of a vaccine if it resulted in a physician visit. The rate was 927 events per million doses.
Fighting Flu without Vaccines
Strategies other than vaccination can also help fight off the flu. Be vigilant about children's handwashing--at least four times a day. Educate children not to share drinks or food and to keep their lips off drinking fountains.
A good night's sleep does wonders for the immune system. A diet with lots of fruits and vegetables helps. Yellow squash, pumpkin, carrots, and sweet potatoes are high in vitamin A, which protects the mucous membranes of the lungs and digestive tract.
Vitamin C boosts the immune system. Parents can give a daily dose of 100 mg of vitamin C per month of age, in children under 2--thus, a 12-month-old gets 1200 mg per day. Over 2 years, give 2000 mg per day. Divide the dose each day in four parts, and give it for three days, starting the day before the shot.
Flu shots are recommended for all children over six months of age, but if you're concerned about risks, talk to your doctor.
Linda Kanagawa is a medical technologist, editor, and mother in Overland Park, KS.