All About the Flu Shot for Babies

Every child over 6 months old should get vaccinated against influenza. Find out when babies can get a flu shot and why it's so important.

Baby Getting Vaccine In Arm
Photo: Africa Studio/Shutterstock

The number of vaccines recommended for infants can be overwhelming to new parents. But here's one less thing to worry about: Getting the influenza shot is perfectly safe for babies 6 months and older. It's also important for preventing scary flu-related complications—like pneumonia and dehydration—that can arise in children younger than 5 years old. Here's everything you need to know about the flu shot for babies.

Why Babies Should Get the Flu Shot

Young children who catch the flu get pneumonia at higher rates than older kids and can become dehydrated more easily. They may also develop ear infections, sinus problems, and a worsening of conditions like asthma or heart disease.

Since 2010, flu-related complications have led to between 7,000 and 28,000 hospitalizations per flu season in children younger than 5 years old, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. The flu can also cause death in rare cases. Indeed, the CDC estimates that between 130 and 1,200 children (younger than 18 years old) have died from the flu each year since 2010.

Vaccinated babies have a decreased chance of contracting the flu. And if they do catch influenza, the flu shot can make the illness less severe, which decreases the risk of hospitalization and death.

Side Effects of the Flu Vaccine for Babies

Despite common misconception, the flu vaccine doesn't actually cause the flu. That's because most shots are made with inactivated viruses, or they use a single gene from a flu virus (as opposed to the full virus), according to the CDC. That said, your baby may experience mild side effects, including low-grade fever, aches, and soreness or redness near the injection site. These symptoms 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.

Is the Flu Vaccine Safe for Babies?

Although the flu shot for babies can reduce the risk of many health complications, some parents worry about thimerosal in vaccines. This mercury-based preservative has previously been falsely 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, only the flu vaccines packaged in multi-dose vials contain thimerosal nowadays, and parents can always ask for thimerosal-free alternatives.

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. "Hundreds of millions of Americans have safely received flu vaccines over the past 50 years, and there has been extensive research supporting the safety of flu vaccines," says the CDC.

When Can Babies Get the Flu Shot?

Babies younger than 6 months can't receive the flu vaccine. Those older than 6 months should get the flu shot every season to prevent health complications and spreading the illness to others.

So when is the best time to get it? Because flu season strengthens in the fall and winter—and because it takes two to four weeks to build effectiveness—the CDC recommends getting the flu vaccine by the end of October. However, getting the vaccine later still protects against the illness.

What Does the Flu Vaccine for Babies Look Like?

There are two types of vaccines: the flu shot (approved for anyone 6 months and older) and a nasal vaccine spray (approved for people ages 2 through 49 without underlying medical issues like asthma). Your baby will most likely receive the flu shot.

If your child is less than 9 years old and has never received a flu vaccination, they 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.

It's important to note that the vaccine isn't perfect. Vaccines are made to target the viruses that are most likely to cause illness each year, so the success rate usually ranges from 40 to 60%. Even so, the reduced risk of illness is worth getting the flu vaccine, particularly for babies as the complications from infection can be quite severe.

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