Of all the routinely recommended inoculations for children, the flu vaccine is the one they’re least likely to be current on, according to a 2015 report by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. Although the reason why isn’t clear, it could be because the vaccine is required annually for ongoing protection, and remembering the once-a- year to-do isn’t always a priority for busy parents. Or, it could be that the flu isn’t perceived to be as big of a deal as, say, measles or rotavirus. But the truth is: Influenza is serious business.
Caused by a virus, influenza is a respiratory illness often associated with fever, cough, body ache and fatigue. Anyone can get the flu, but according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), pregnant women and infants are especially vulnerable—not just to infection but to severe and even deadly complications.
Preventing the flu starts with taking the illness seriously. Doctors recommend annual flu shots and commonsense safeguards as the best ways to keep both you and your little one healthy this winter.
“Unlike other viruses, influenza can be a truly deadly infection. It is not to be taken lightly,” notes Stan Spinner, MD, chief medical officer for Texas Children’s Pediatrics. “This is a bad bug.”
Little babies, big risk
On average, some 20,000 young children a year are hospitalized because of the flu, according to CDC estimates. Because their immune systems are immature, infants are at increased risk of complications such as ear or sinus infection, pneumonia, dehydration and even organ failure.
“There’s no way to predict whether your child will experience severe complications,” Spinner says. “It’s best to be protected ahead of time.” He and other experts recommend that all babies and children ages 6 months and older get a flu shot each year—and that they get them as soon as the vaccine is available, usually in early fall.
That’s because timing is important, especially when it comes to babies. For one thing, it takes about two weeks for the body to develop flu-fighting antibodies. Second, if this is your baby’s first time getting a flu shot, she’ll need two doses, spaced four weeks apart, to be fully vaccinated.
Protect yourself, protect your baby
If your newborn is—or will be—too young to receive a flu shot, the best way to protect him is to protect the people around him, starting with yourself, says Carol J. Baker, MD, executive director of the Center for Vaccine Awareness and Research at Texas Children’s Hospital.
The flu vaccine is safe throughout pregnancy. Not only can it help a mom-to-be avoid dangerous flu complications, Baker adds, but it can guard her new arrival, too. The mother’s antibodies are passed on to the newborn, she says, and can remain effective two months or more after birth. “Mommy can give her immunity to her baby. It’s like a gift,” says Baker.
Anyone else who will be regularly caring for or spending time with your baby should be immunized as well, recommends Jillian Parekh, MD, attending pediatric physician at Montefiore Medical Center’s Family Care Center in New York.
That includes grandparents and older siblings. “People might think it’s an outrageous request, but you have to have your infant’s best interests in mind,” assures Perekh.
Stop the spread
Besides vaccination, doctors advise that the best way to guard against the flu is to prevent it from spreading. Influenza is passed person-to-person through coughs, sneezes and, unfortunately, kisses.
“Wash your hands often, and make sure anyone holding your baby does, too”, says Deborah Mulligan, MD, director of the Institute for Child Health Policy and clinical professor of pediatrics at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you sneeze or cough—and then throw that tissue away. “We all know people who are compulsive about cleaning. That’s a good thing during flu season,” says Mulligan, who also serves as chief medical officer of MDLIVE, a tele-health company.
Of course, you should do your best to keep your newborn away from anyone who’s sick. And if you come down with the flu? “That might mean dad or grandma or grandpa have to pick up some of the responsibilities,” Baker says. But, she adds, if you’re up to it, breastfeeding is still safe, even if you’re taking antiviral medication. It’s also a natural way to boost baby’s immune system.
No flu-prevention effort is 100 percent effective. Even if you’ve done everything you can, you or your baby might still get sick. Call your pediatrician if you suspect your little one has the flu, advises Parekh, and know that symptoms can seem a lot like those of the common cold: “They might have a fever, a cough or just really not seem like themselves.” Poor feeding, vomiting and diarrhea can be signs of the flu in infants as well.
Even if your baby doesn’t have any symptoms, let your pediatrician know if someone else in the house has the flu, advises Parekh. As a precaution, your doctor might decide to treat your baby with the antiviral medication Tamiflu.