Protect Children with the Flu Vaccine

Young girl getting a band-aid after receiving her flu vaccination

Influenza (flu) is a contagious viral infection that affects the respiratory system. Children are especially vulnerable to becoming sick with flu because of exposures in classrooms or daycare settings. The single best way to protect your children against seasonal flu, and its potentially severe consequences, is to get them and get yourself a flu vaccine each year!

Millions of children get sick with seasonal flu, thousands are hospitalized, and some children die from flu each year. During the 2017-2018 flu season, 185 flu-associated deaths in children were reported to CDC. That’s the highest number since the 2004-2005 flu season, when flu-associated deaths in people younger than 18 years old became nationally reportable. But the number of actual flu deaths in children is thought to be higher than that because not all cases of flu are detected. This happens for a number of reasons including that people may not be tested for flu, or they seek medical care later in their illness when influenza can no longer be detected from respiratory samples. In addition, some commonly used tests to diagnose influenza in clinical settings are not highly sensitive and can provide false negative results.

To get what CDC believes is a more accurate number of actual flu-related deaths, CDC uses statistical modeling to estimate the burden of flu. Using a peer-reviewed mathematical model, CDC estimates that since 2010, influenza has resulted in between 2.9 million – 12 million illnesses, between 12,000 and 48,000 hospitalizations, and between 37 (reported) and 1,200 deaths annually among children (people younger than 18 years of age). While reported deaths is likely an underestimate, it does give us important additional information about children who die from flu. For example, among reported pediatric deaths since 2004, about 80 percent of the deaths occurred among children who were not fully vaccinated against flu. Since the 2010-2011 flu season, between 40 percent and 60 percent of pediatric deaths occurred in children who were otherwise healthy, underscoring the fact that even healthy kids can get sick and die from flu.

Flu Vaccine Dosage Recommendations

As you get yourself and your family vaccinated this season, remember that some children 6 months through 8 years of age require two doses of flu vaccine for optimal protection from flu. Children in this age group who are getting vaccinated for the first time, or who have previously received only one dose of vaccine, should get two doses of vaccine this season. The two doses need to be given at least 28 days apart. For children who will need two doses of flu vaccine, the first dose should be given as early as possible to allow time for immunity to kick in before flu starts to spread in your community. For other children, it is a good practice to get them vaccinated by the end of October; however, getting vaccinated later can still be beneficial, as long as flu viruses are circulating. Ask your child’s doctor or other health care professional if your child needs two doses of flu vaccine.

Flu Is Dangerous for Children and May Cause Additional Serious Health Problems

Some children are at especially high risk of developing serious flu complications, which can result in hospitalization and death:

  • Children younger than 6 months old are too young to be vaccinated. The best way to protect an infant from flu is for the expecting mom to get vaccinated during her pregnancy (antibodies are passed from mom to the developing baby) and to make sure others around them are vaccinated. This includes parents, grandparents, siblings, and caregivers.
  • Children aged 6 months up to their 5th birthday – even those who are healthy – are at high risk of developing serious flu complications simply because of their age.
  • Children aged 6 months through 18 years with certain long-term health problems, such as asthma, diabetes, or neurological and neurodevelopmental conditions, also are at high-risk for complications from flu.

A Flu Vaccine Can Be Life-Saving in Children

Flu vaccination reduces flu illnesses, doctor’s visits, and missed work and school, but perhaps more important, a growing body of evidence supports the fact that vaccination also reduces the risk of serious flu outcomes that can result in hospitalization and even death. A 2014 study in the Journal of Infectious Disease showed that flu vaccine reduced children’s risk of flu-related pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) admission by 74% during flu seasons from 2010-2012. More recently, a 2017 study in the journal Pediatrics showed that flu vaccination significantly reduced a child’s risk of dying from influenza. This study considered data from four flu seasons between 2010 and 2014, and found that flu vaccination reduced the likelihood of flu-associated death by half (51 percent) among children with underlying high-risk medical conditions. Flu vaccination also reduced the likelihood of flu-associated death by nearly two-thirds (65 percent) among healthy children.

CDC recommends that everyone 6 months of age and older get an annual seasonal flu vaccine. While vaccination by the end of October is recommended, vaccination efforts should continue as long as flu viruses are circulating.

Types of Flu Vaccines for Children

For the 2018-2019 flu season, CDC recommends annual influenza vaccination with any licensed, age-appropriate flu vaccine, with no preference expressed for any one vaccine over another.

  • Flu shots (Inactivated Influenza Vaccine or IIV), vaccines given as an injection and made with inactivated (killed) flu virus some of which are approved for use in people 6 months and older.
  • The nasal spray vaccine (Live Attenuated Influenza Vaccine or LAIV) is approved for use in people 2 through 49 years of age who are not pregnant. However, there is a precaution against the use of nasal spray flu vaccine in people with certain underlying medical conditions. You can find out more about the nasal spray vaccine here.

Flu vaccines are offered in many locations, including doctor’s offices, clinics, health departments, pharmacies, and even some schools and employers. The HealthMap Vaccine FinderExternal can help you find places in your community offering flu vaccine.

More information for parents is available at CDC’s Flu Information for Parents with Young Children’s webpage. If you have questions about getting a flu vaccine for your child, talk to your child’s pediatrician or health care provider.

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Page last reviewed: November 26, 2018