Let’s face it: after more than two-and-a-half years of pandemic living, a lot of Canadians are tired of hearing about vaccines, boosters and viruses in general. We’re seeing fewer masks in public spaces and trying to navigate what “living with COVID” means for each of us. Flu shots may not be top of mind for many parents right now and in some cases, they’re not even on the radar.
Understandably, pandemic fatigue may influence which precautions you take (or don’t take) this fall and winter. But with a drastic reduction in masking and physical distancing, viruses are circulating a lot more freely than they were this time last year—and that means it’s time for your family to roll up their sleeves and get the flu shot.
“Children are one of the more vulnerable populations when it comes to influenza,” says Dr. Natasha Collia, an emergency physician at SickKids in Toronto. “Kids are back to school and activities, and we know that cases of flu are expected to rise.”
Symptoms of the flu (which has several different strains) are similar to those of COVID-19 and include fever, chills, aches and pain, a cough and a sore throat. Children may experience gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. In severe cases, influenza in children may lead to pneumonia, dehydration, heart or neurological problems leading to hospitalization or death. Cases of the flu were dramatically lower during the height of the pandemic due to public health measures like masking and physical distancing, but they’re expected to significantly rise this season. About 12,000 Canadians are hospitalized with the flu in an average non-pandemic year, according to Health Canada, including several hundred children. It's a significant number, Collia says, given how easy it is to prevent such severe cases.
Flu shots are available to all Canadians aged six months or older, and it’s safe for pregnant women. Despite claims to the contrary, you cannot get the flu from the flu shot. The influenza vaccine is also available in nasal spray form, though infants and toddlers under the age of two, children who are immunocompromised, pregnant women and individuals taking certain medications must get the injectable version.
Children under the age of five are at risk of severe illness from the flu, and kids under the age of three are particularly vulnerable, Collia says. Seniors and immunocompromised individuals are also at high risk, so it’s important to avoid passing influenza onto grandparents and other high risk contacts—that neighbour who just underwent cancer treatment, for example, or a teacher who has an autoimmune disorder.
It’s also important to remember that many hospitals are still overwhelmed. “There are shortages of medication and the health care system is under strain because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” says Dr. Jennifer Kwan, a family doctor in Burlington, Ontario. Many families are finding it difficult to access basic over-the-counter paediatric medications like Tylenol or Advil, leading to unnecessary ER visits. This is especially concerning going into flu season, as scientists warn that new, more infectious COVID strains are on the way.
By protecting our families against the flu and other viruses, we’re doing our part to reduce the burden on healthcare workers while keeping our loved ones healthy. Dr. Kwan adds that preventative measures like wearing a well-fitting mask indoors will reduce the spread of multiple respiratory infections including influenza.
While disinformation about flu shots and vaccines in general rages on, the proven truth is that the flu shot is a simple and effective way to prevent severe illness and death for adults and children over the age of six months. “Globally, it’s shown great efficacy,” Collia says. “Yes, [the] is safe—and it’s our best form of protection.”
Like any vaccine, there may be mild and manageable side effects like a fever or redness and soreness around the injection site—or if you received a nasal spray dosage of the influenza vaccine, a sore throat or runny nose. All of these side effects should clear up within a day or two, and some individuals won’t experience them at all.
As soon as possible, our experts agree. There’s an easy way to remember when to get your influenza vaccine from year to year: flu before boo. Essentially, get your shot as early as possible—before Halloween at the latest. “You want to get the shot and have your body build up resistance to the virus, and that takes about two weeks,” Collia says.
And if you’re booking a flu shot and a COVID-19 booster? Adults can get them simultaneously, but experts recommend that kids under the age of 12 wait two weeks between jabs. That way, if your child does experience side effects, it will be easier to pinpoint the cause.
The influenza vaccine does cover the dominant strains of flu but cannot prevent all cases. Inevitably, some kids are going to catch it—and medical professionals are doing their best to prepare. “Our emergency department schedules are [prepared] back-to-school viruses,” Collia says. But she also notes that educating and empowering parents in matters related to their child's health is just as important.
So, when should parents seek medical attention? “If your child is having trouble breathing or working hard to breathe at any point, describing severe muscle pain or refusing to walk, appearing dehydrated—not making tears or not peeing—or has a seizure,” Collia says, consult a doctor. (She adds that if your child is under 12 weeks and has a fever, you should always take them to the ER.) Other red flags include a cough that improves but then acutely worsens. “Having this information can help parents navigate [viruses] and alleviate that fear and frustration as well.”
The real message here: don’t let it get to that point. “If you protect [your] ahead of time, it allows for less disruption caused by illness and less disruption to family dynamics—like [missing] work or school—and it also prevents severe disease,” Collia says. After the last two-and-a-half years, less disruption sounds good to us.
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