Children & Influenza (Flu)

Young children playing

Children younger than 5 years old–especially those younger than 2– are at high risk of developing serious flu-related complications. A flu vaccine offers the best defense against flu and its potentially serious consequences and can also reduce the spread of flu to others. Getting vaccinated has been shown to reduce flu illnesses, doctor’s visits, missed work and school days, and reduce the risk of flu-related hospitalization and death in children. Information on this page summarizes vaccine recommendations for children. Visit this page to learn more about vaccine benefits.

What Parents Need to Know About Flu

Picture of a woman hugging her child

Flu is more dangerous than the common cold for children. Each year flu places a large burden on the health and well-being of children and their families.

Influenza is dangerous for children

Flu illness is more dangerous than the common cold for children. Each year, millions of children get sick with seasonal flu; thousands of children are hospitalized, and some children die from flu. Children commonly need medical care because of flu, especially children younger than 5 years old.

  • Complications from flu among children in this age group can include:
    • Pneumonia: an illness where the lungs get infected and inflamed
    • Dehydration: when a child’s body loses too much water and salts, often because fluid losses are greater than from fluid intake)
    • Worsening of long-term medical problems like heart disease or asthma
    • Brain dysfunction such as encephalopathy
    • Sinus problems and ear infections
    • In rare cases, flu complications can lead to death.
  • Flu seasons vary in severity, however every year children are at risk
    • CDC estimates that since 2010, flu-related hospitalizations among children younger than 5 years old have ranged from 7,000 to 26,000 in the United States.
    • While relatively rare, some children die from flu each year. Since 2004-2005, flu-related deaths in children reported to CDC during regular flu seasons have ranged from 37 to 187 deaths. Even though the reported number of deaths during the 2017-2018 flu season was 187, CDC’s mathematical models that account for the underreporting of flu-related deaths in children estimate the actual number was closer to 600. Information about pediatric deaths since the 2004-2005 flu season is available in the interactive pediatric death web application.

Some children are at especially high risk

Children at greatest risk of serious flu-related complications include the following:

  1. Children younger than 6 months old
    These children are too young to be vaccinated. The best way to protect these children is for their mother to get a flu shot during pregnancy and for people around them to get vaccinated, as well. A flu shot given during pregnancy has been shown to not only protect the mother from flu, but also to help protect the baby from flu infection for several months after birth, before he or she is old enough to be vaccinated.
  2. Children aged 6 months up to their 5th birthday
    Since 2010, CDC estimates that flu-related hospitalizations among children younger than 5 years ranged from 7,000 to 26,000. Even children in this age group who are otherwise healthy are at high risk simply because of their age. Additionally, children 2 years of age up to their 5th birthday are more likely than healthy older children to be taken to a doctor, an urgent care center, or the emergency room because of flu1,2,3. To protect their health, all children 6 months and older should be vaccinated against flu each year. Vaccinating young children, their families, and other caregivers can also help protect them from getting sick.
  3. American Indian and Alaskan Native children
    These children are more likely to have severe flu illness that results in hospitalization or death.4,5
  4. Children aged 6 months old through 18 years old with chronic health problems, including:
    • Asthma and other chronic lung diseases (such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [COPD] and cystic fibrosis)
    • Neurologic and neurodevelopment conditions [including disorders of the brain, spinal cord, peripheral nerve, and muscle such as cerebral palsy, epilepsy (seizure disorders), stroke, intellectual disability (mental retardation), moderate to severe developmental delay, muscular dystrophy, or spinal cord injury]
    • Chronic lung disease
    • Heart disease (such as congenital heart disease, congestive heart failure and coronary artery disease)
    • Blood disorders (such as sickle cell disease)
    • Endocrine disorders (such as diabetes mellitus)
    • Kidney disorders
    • Liver disorders
    • Metabolic disorders (such as inherited metabolic disorders and mitochondrial disorders)
    • Weakened immune system due to disease or medication (such as people with HIV or AIDS, or cancer, or those on chronic steroids)
    • Children who are taking aspirin or salicylate-containing medicines
    • Extreme obesity, which has been associated with severe flu illness in some studies of adults, may also be a risk factor for children. Childhood obesity is defined as a body mass index (BMI) at or above the 95th percentile, for age and sex.

Vaccination is the best protection against flu

Note: See Frequently Asked Flu Questions 2019-2020 Influenza Season for flu and flu vaccine information specific to the current flu season.

Picture of a child getting vaccinated

The best way to prevent flu is with a flu vaccine. CDC recommends that everyone 6 months of age and older get a seasonal flu vaccine each year by the end of October. However, as long as flu viruses are circulating, vaccination should continue throughout flu season, even in January or later. Keep in mind that vaccination is especially important for certain people who are high risk or who are in close contact with high risk persons. This includes children at high risk of developing complications from flu illness, and adults who are close contacts of those children.

Flu vaccines are updated each season as needed to protect against the influenza viruses that research indicates will be most common during the upcoming season. (See Vaccine Virus Selection for this season’s vaccine composition.) The 2019-2020 vaccine has been updated from last season’s vaccine to better match circulating viruses. Immunity from vaccination sets in after about two weeks.

Types of flu vaccines for children

  • Injectable influenza vaccine (IIV) is given as an injection (with a needle) and is approved for use in people 6 months and older.
  • Live inactivated influenza vaccine (LAIV) is given as a nasal spray and is approved for use in people 2 through 49 years old. However, there is a precaution against the use of nasal spray flu vaccine (LAIV) in people with certain underlying medical conditions. More information about the nasal spray flu vaccine can be found here.

Children 6 months and older should get an annual flu vaccine. For the 2019-2020 flu season, CDC recommends annual influenza vaccination for everyone 6 months and older with any licensed, age-appropriate flu vaccine.

Your child’s health care provider will know which vaccines are right for your child.

For more information on the different types of flu vaccines available visit CDC’s Different Types of Flu Vaccines page.

Special vaccination instructions for children aged 6 months through 8 years of age

  • Some children 6 months through 8 years of age require two doses of flu vaccine for adequate protection from flu. Children in this age group getting vaccinated for the first time, and those who have only previously gotten one dose of vaccine, should get two doses of vaccine this season—spaced at least 4 weeks apart. Your child’s health care provider can tell you if your child needs two doses.
  • If your child needs the two doses, begin the process early. This will ensure that your child is protected before influenza starts circulating in your community.
  • Be sure to get your child a second dose if he or she needs one. It usually takes about two weeks after the second dose for protection to begin.

Children should be vaccinated every flu season

Children should be vaccinated every flu season for the best protection against flu. For children who will need two doses of flu vaccine, the first dose should be given as early in the season as possible. For other children, it is good practice to get them vaccinated by the end of October. However, getting vaccinated later can still be protective, as long as flu viruses are circulating. While seasonal flu outbreaks can happen as early as October, during most seasons flu activity peaks between December and February. Since it takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies to develop in the body that protect against flu virus infection, it is best that people get vaccinated so they are protected before influenza begins spreading in their community.

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