The number of vaccines recommended for infants can be overwhelming to new parents, especially since the shots start at birth. But here’s one less thing to worry about: getting the influenza vaccination is perfectly safe for babies 6 months and older.
Only about four out of 10 U.S. babies ages six to 23 months got a flu vaccine in 2016, according to information from federal health officials. But for those with compromised immune systems, such as babies and children younger than 5 years old, the flu can have several scary complications. Babies who catch the flu get pneumonia at higher rates than older children and can become dehydrated more easily. They may also develop ear infections, sinus problems, and a worsening of conditions like asthma or heart disease. According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), these complications have led to 7,000 to 26,000 hospitalizations per flu season since 2010, as well as 37 to 180 yearly deaths since 2004-2005.
Although the flu shot for babies can reduce the risk of many of these health problems, some parents worry about thimerosal (a mercury-based preservative) in flu shots, which has previously been linked to autism in young children. In actuality, study after study continues to disprove any link between thimerosal in vaccines and autism in children. Plus, many flu shots no longer contain thimerosal, so ask your pediatrician about mercury-free vaccines if desired.
After getting the flu shot, your child may experience mild side effects, including low-grade fever, aches, and soreness or redness near the location of the shot. These only last a day or two. Serious allergic reactions (usually attributed to egg protein in the shot) are rare. But if your child is experiencing breathing problems, wheezing, hives, dizziness, accelerated heartbeat, or other worrisome symptoms, inform a doctor immediately. Keep in mind that research shows that the risks associated with a baby contracting the flu are far worse than any side effects that may occur as a result of the shot.
Babies younger than 6 months can’t receive the flu vaccine because their immune systems aren’t strong enough. Yet they can still contract the flu and experience complications. The best prevention method is eliminating potential exposure by making sure all other members of the household get vaccinated.
Those older than 6 months should get the flu shot every season to prevent health complications and spreading the illness to other. There are two options: the flu shot and a nasal vaccine spray, which is approved for people ages 2 through 49 without underlying medical issues like asthma. If your child is less than 9 years old and has never received a flu vaccination, he will need two doses. The second dose, which is administered about one month after the first, gives your child’s immature immune system time to respond.
Flu season usually strengthens in fall and winter; since the flu vaccine takes two to four weeks to build effectiveness, you should plan for flu shots with plenty of time. The CDC recommends getting the flu vaccine for babies by the end of October – although later vaccinations can still effectively protect against the illness.
It’s also important to note that the vaccine isn’t perfect; the success rate usually ranges from 40% to 60%, depending on the flu season. Even so, the reduced risk of illness is worth getting the flu vaccine for babies.