A Pediatrician’s Perspective on Flu Shots for Kids

Little boy getting his bandaid after receiving the flu shot

With cold and flu season in full swing, it seemed like a great time to get some information from our good friend Dr. Lavin. Don't forget you can get more trusted health information from Dr. Lavin on the ParentTalk Podcast!

Flu is a confusing word. 

When we talk about flu shots, we are talking about a very specific species of virus called the influenza viruses. 

When we talk about having a “cold or a flu,” we are talking about a wide variety of illnesses, mostly respiratory infections that cause sneezing, sore throat, pink eye, laryngitis/croup, coughing, allergy-like symptoms and pneumonia. And, then there’s also a whole different set of illnesses called stomach flus.

For this post, I’ll be talking about that one species of virus, the influenza virus. I’ll discuss what this virus is and if you need flu shots for your kids – and yourself.

What Is Influenza? 

Influenza viruses are respiratory viruses that land on our airways and wreak havoc on their linings. This means that influenza almost always infects the cells that line our internal tissues that touch air. Those would include the lining of our:

  • Noses
  • Throats
  • Voice boxes
  • Airways
  • Lungs
  • Eyes  

When the influenza virus, or any other respiratory virus, infects these linings, it kills the cells that line these structures. In many ways, this is exactly like a burn, but only as deep as the surface of the linings, fortunately. But, when a lining is burned, it gets weepy, makes mucus and hurts, hence the runny nose, sore throat, hoarse voice and painful cough that come with influenza.

Mother tucking her daughter into bed and taking her temperatureMother tucking her daughter into bed and taking her temperature

What Makes the Flu Different? 

The influenza virus is unique amongst all respiratory viruses in two ways. First, it’s highly seasonal. In most of the U.S., it appears in mid-December every year and disappears by May. No one knows how a tiny virus manages to spread across continents in a matter of weeks, almost always in the same month, and then just as strangely, nearly completely disappears in the spring, but that’s the pattern we see.   

Second, during those months it’s not with us, the influenza virus mutates so that it can infect barnyard animals, such as cows, pigs and horses. The new form then comes back in winter, able to re-infect us all over again because it has varied. The trek through animals is familiar in names that trace its path like swine flu or bovine flu.

Is the Influenza Virus Dangerous? 

Nearly everyone on the planet gets infected with the influenza virus many times. And nearly everyone, with every infection, experiences something between cold symptoms and a nasty flu – but recovers with no lasting effects. 

But, the influenza virus can be deadly. Just as with COVID, death by influenza virus becomes far more likely as you get older. About 30-50,000 Americans die from the influenza virus every year, but at most only about 200 of these deaths happen in children under 18 years old. Adults over the age of 65 are nearly 75 times more likely to die from influenza than a child 5-17 years of age.

But, at about 50,000 deaths a year, this virus kills as many as half the number of people COVID is killing today. So it is serious.

Mom, dad and child all suffering from flu symptoms together on the couchMom, dad and child all suffering from flu symptoms together on the couch

OK, so Why Get a Flu Shot for Kids? 

Flu shots are amazing. Every year scientists take samples from cows, pigs, horses and other animals, identifying the exact nature of the influenza viruses that will infect us that winter. They take these identified variants and create a flu shot every summer that is fashioned to protect from the four most likely variants.

I always run to get my flu shot every September or so. Why?

First, I hate being sick. I hate coughing for even a few days, never mind a few weeks. About a third of colds and flus in the winter are from the influenza virus, so if I get a flu shot, I get rid of a third of my colds and flus. Even getting rid of one is a huge improvement … and I think your kids would agree, too!

Second, I’m an adult so the virus really could kill me, and flu shot offers protection.

Third, all of us, including your kids, can be a wall to protect everyone we care about who’s over the age of 65. We know from actual studies that if a community, particularly its children, get the flu shot, the elderly are protected from dying from the virus. It is frightening to think how many folks 65 or older would die this winter if no one bothered to get their flu shot. I am sure it would be well over 100,000, worse than COVID.

But it’s also compelling to consider that if far more kids and young adults got their annual flu shot, we could drop the number of even healthy older adults dying from this virus to well below 50,000 deaths, surely well below even 30,000. So, fewer colds for you and your children, and tens of thousands of lives saved? Sounds like reason enough!

Young girl blowing her noseYoung girl blowing her nose

The Flu Shot Is the ONLY Practical and Effective Defense 

If you’re still on the fence, consider this: influenza viruses spread through the air. So the only way, besides flu shots, to prevent getting infected with influenza is to not breathe air that has these viruses in it. 

That is very hard to pull off in any sort of community. To effectively prevent the flu, it would mean wearing a mask everywhere but outdoors, even at home, and avoiding indoor spaces, including school and work. For nearly half the year!

How Have the Influenza Epidemics Varied in the Age of COVID? 

As noted influenza epidemics in the United States, for many, many years have started like clockwork in mid-December and cleared by May.

But in ways we do not yet understand, COVID has disrupted these patterns. Two winters ago, the COVID pandemic wiped out the great annual influenza epidemic around the entire planet, entirely. For the first time in recorded history, there was no influenza epidemic for a year, astounding.  

Last year the influenza epidemic cycle returned but was far milder. This year is different, too.  The influenza epidemic in the U.S. this year began in mid-October, two months earlier than ever.  And, it appeared with a roar! This is part of the reason we all are feeling like everyone is so sick with colds and flus this autumn.

Mother taking her sick child's temperature in bedMother taking her sick child's temperature in bed

Dr. Lavin’s Bottom Lines on Influenza and Flu Shots for Kids 

  1. There are a large variety of viruses that infect our airways – our noses, throats, voice boxes and lungs. They are called respiratory viruses, and they cause all sorts of respiratory colds and flus.
  2. Influenza is one of the species in this group.
  3. Influenza viruses are unique in both being seasonal – showing up regularly in mid-December to May – and in the ability to mutate enough to infect us all over again.
  4. The influenza viruses kill about 30-50,000 Americans every year. The vast majority are adults, and only about one or two hundred of the lost lives are in children less than 18 years old.
  5. The only real way to avoid getting colds and flus from the influenza virus and to avoid passing it on to those it can kill is for everyone to get a flu shot every year.
  6. COVID altered the pattern of the yearly influenza epidemic. Two years ago there was simply no epidemic at all, and last year, far milder. This year it started earlier, making this fall a very intense time for colds and flus.

Naturepedic has some natural immunity-boosting tips for you, too. Stay healthy this winter!

Dr. Arthur Lavin, M.D.Dr. Arthur Lavin, M.D.

Arthur Lavin, M.D., is a pediatrician with 25+ years of experience. Dr. Lavin trained at Harvard, Ohio State University and MIT, earning board certifications as a general pediatrician and as a specialist in newborn medicine. He has served as president of the Northern Ohio Pediatric Society and on a number of national committees of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Lavin received international recognition from Microsoft for being a pioneer in the use of technology in medicine, and has been at the forefront of applying the lessons of brain science to helping families advance their children’s learning and coping needs. Dr. Lavin now co-hosts the ParentTalk podcast.