As a pediatrician in a busy New York City practice, I have been asked lot of questions from concerned parents about how bad this year’s flu season has been. Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions I’ve been asked this flu season.
Why should I bother with the vaccine if it’s not effective?
While there have been a lot of headlines about how this year’s vaccine is not that effective, it is still a good idea to get vaccinated—while the vaccine is certainly not 100% effective, we still recommend parents vaccinate their children (and get the vaccine themselves!). The latest midseason estimates by the CDC show that the vaccine is about 36% effective overall (25% effective against influenza A H3N2 virus strain – which is the most commonly circulating and virulent strain this season so far, 67% effective against influenza A H1N1, and 42% effective against influenza B virus strains). Among children aged 6 months to 8 years, the flu vaccine reduces the risk of seeking medical attention because of the flu by more than half – about 59%! Even if your child contracts the influenza virus after having received the flu vaccine, the severity of your child’s illness will likely be decreased. Additionally, the side effects of the vaccine are very minimal and significant adverse events are exceedingly rare, so the benefits of getting vaccinated far outweigh the risks.
Can I get the flu from the flu vaccine?
No, the flu vaccine cannot cause the flu. The vaccine that is administered this season is the inactivated flu vaccine, which contains virus particles that have been altered such that it is impossible for them to cause infection. Generally, the vaccine may at most cause a low-grade fever, headache, nausea, or soreness at the site of injection. Remember that it is still possible to get the flu even after having received the vaccine, but it would likely be less severe. Also, keep in mind that we tend to administer the flu vaccine in fall or winter months when other viruses are already circulating so it is entirely plausible to fall sick with another virus shortly after receiving the flu vaccine.
Is it too late to get the vaccine now?
The earlier you get the flu vaccine the better, but I would still encourage anyone to get it now, especially as we are seeing such a high incidence of the flu. The flu season is likely to last several more weeks at least. The flu vaccine is one of the only ways to help reduce your risk of contracting influenza and spreading it to others. Keep in mind that it takes about 2 weeks after receiving the vaccine for your body to generate antibodies to help protect yourself from the flu virus.
I see in the news that people are dying of the flu—how worried should I be?
Influenza is a viral illness that can and does cause severe complications and possibly death in some patients every year. However, it is important to remember that most people who contract the flu develop relatively mild illness and recover fully within one to two weeks. There are certain individuals who are at high risk for developing influenza-related complications. These people include children under the age of 5 years (and especially under the age of 2 years), adults aged 65 years and older, pregnant women, immunocompromised individuals, and those with chronic health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, or kidney disease. That being said, there are ways to help protect yourself and your loved ones. Firstly, get the flu vaccine every year and encourage your friends and family to do the same. This is one of the most important steps in protecting yourself and your child from influenza-related complications. Secondly, practice good hand hygiene and avoid contact with anyone who might be sick. Thirdly, if your child does get sick with flu-like symptoms, please be proactive and bring your child in to be evaluated as soon as possible – there are things that we as doctors can do to help. Ask your child’s pediatrician if your child would benefit from antiviral treatment for the flu.
Should I avoid taking my child to the pediatrician, with so many sick kids in the waiting room?
In general, most practices have a way to isolate people who are sick and sanitize waiting areas and exam rooms. For children who have fever and/or cough, we offer medical masks for them to wear if they are able when they check in. If you’re setting up a well appointment for your child, I’d recommend you see if there is a time of day to come when there aren’t as many people in the waiting area, to minimize flu exposure. That’s especially important for small infants or newborns—I’d suggest coming in first thing in the morning or at the end of the day. You shouldn’t skip it altogether though; it’s still a good idea to see your doctor whenever you or your child needs to.