Q. Does my child really need a flu shot? How do I know it's safe?
A. Every fall and winter, parents face the question: Should my child get an influenza (flu) shot?
Many parents worry about risks and side effects, and if the shot is really necessary or worthwhile. Here are the reasons I recommend that children older than 6 months get a flu shot every year:
• Influenza can be dangerous, even for healthy children. The flu can be particularly dangerous for children with asthma, diabetes or other chronic health problems. But even healthy children can get very sick -- and possibly die -- from influenza. The H1N1 "swine flu" virus that has been circulating since the epidemic of 2009-2010 is particularly dangerous for kids.
• You can't catch the flu from a flu shot. The flu shot, given by needle, contains virus that has been killed. It cannot infect you. The flu shot is safe for children 6 months of age and older, including children with chronic medical conditions. (The nasal spray flu vaccine is made with live, weakened flu virus. If your child is between 6 months and 2 years or has a weakened immune system, he or she should get the flu shot, not the nasal spray vaccine.)
Some kids (and adults) do get a mild fever, an aching muscle where the flu shot was given, and feel tired for a day or so. That's not because the shot gave them the flu; it's a sign that their immune system is responding vigorously to the shot. That's good news, because that's what we want the immune system to do.
• The flu shot is safe. Years of experience have shown that the influenza vaccine is very safe. There is no evidence that thimerosal, a common vaccine preservative, is dangerous for children. But preservative-free preparations are available. A particular flu vaccine used in 1976 did seem to cause a few cases of the neurological condition called Guillain-Barre syndrome. But this same condition can follow getting the flu itself more often than after the vaccine.
• The flu shot protects more than your child. Kids are germ-producing machines. Your child may weather the flu fine -- but what about others who could catch the flu from your child?
Talk to your pediatrician before having your child vaccinated if he or she:
• Has a severe allergy to eggs. The flu vaccine may contain some egg protein, which can cause an allergic reaction.
• Had a severe reaction to a flu vaccine in the past.
• Developed Guillain-Barre syndrome within six weeks of getting a flu shot in the past (a very rare event).
The flu shot is a safe treatment. It can make all the difference in your child's health and the health of everyone around him.
• Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. Submit questions or get additional information at AskDoctorK.com.