The flu shot: The best decision you can make for your family's health

The most important thing you can do to protect your child's health this winter is to get them a flu shot. While a flu vaccine is critical every year, the threat of COVID-19 makes it even more critical in 2020.

Although you may not know it, to a healthy child, flu poses a greater threat for complications than COVID-19. Infants and children with underlying conditions also face increased risk of complications from both flu and COVID. In fact, last year, millions of children across the nation got the flu; many ended up hospitalized, and 166 children died.

Both COVID and flu are contagious respiratory viruses but are caused by different viruses. What complicates the situation this year is that COVID and the flu have similar symptoms. It takes a test to diagnose them. And it is likely both will be spreading around the community.

Both the flu and COVID-19 are spread by droplets, and at onset, the flu and COVID have common, similar symptoms:

• Fever, chills

• Cough

• Shortness of breath, difficulty breathing

• Fatigue

• Vomiting and diarrhea

• Sore throat

• Runny, stuffy nose

• Body aches

• Headaches

It takes longer for COVID to show symptoms. With the flu, only the day before symptoms is it contagious and remains so for one to four days after infection. COVID is more contagious, and children can be asymptomatic and spread the disease two days before symptoms. It remains contagious for five to 14 days after symptoms appear.

Complications from both flu and COVID include:

• Pneumonia

• Respiratory failure

• Inflamed heart, brain, muscles

That's why it is essential that children are immunized against the flu this season. Flu shots are effective and lessen the risk of children suffering severe complications from it.

Here are the recommendations for parents this flu season:

• Get any child over the age of 6 months a flu shot. The vaccine gives children the immunity they need. Both flu shots and nasal vaccines are available for children.

• Get all adults in the household flu shots. Set a good example for your children.

• Keep your children home from school if they have any symptoms - even a runny nose.

• If your child has a fever and symptoms, call your pediatrician. You can also access them through virtual visits.

Because both the flu and COVID are highly contagious and spread quickly, the entire family needs to take these additional precautions:

• Teach your children and all members of the family to frequently wash hands and keep them away from their faces

• Wear masks when in public

• Practice social distancing

• Avoid large crowds with your children

• Frequently clean surfaces in your home

• Protect high-risk family members from those who are more susceptible to illness this winter

While walk-in appointments for flu shots have been encouraged in the past, this year, we urge parents to schedule an appointment in advance at a flu shot clinic or their pediatrician's office to ensure a safe, socially distanced visit.

• Children's health is a continuing series. Dr. Frank Belmonte is a pediatrician and chief medical officer of Advocate Children's Hospital.

Dr. Frank Belmonte
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