The flu spreads by droplets when people cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets travel short distances through the air and land in the mouths, eyes or noses of people nearby. You can also get the flu by touching something that an infected person has touched and then touching your own mouth, eyes or nose.
Some people may think of the flu as a remote risk, but during last year's flu season more than 20 million children were infected. Most took a few days off from school and recovered without trouble, but 87,000 were hospitalized and more than 1,200 children died. Flu severity can vary widely, but children under 5 and those with chronic health conditions like asthma, diabetes, severe neurological disorders or heart disease are at a particularly increased risk for serious complications if they get the flu.
Unfortunately, you can't avoid the flu just by avoiding people who are obviously infected because most people are contagious for at least one day before they get any symptoms and stay contagious for about five to seven days after becoming sick. The infectious period may be longer in children.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that ALL children and adolescents over age 6 months be vaccinated. The vaccine prevents influenza in about 70-90 percent of healthy children and if an immunized child does get the disease it is usually less severe. Children younger than 6 months should not receive the vaccine and in that case household contacts should be vaccinated. This is called "cocooning" and it is meant to reduce the baby's exposure risk by reducing household infections. Children who have had a severe allergic reaction to eggs or to a previous flu shot also should not be immunized.
It takes two weeks after being vaccinated for the body to gain protection.
The most common side effects are soreness, redness or swelling where the shot was given, which usually last one or two days. You cannot get the flu from a flu shot, but some people get fever, muscle pain and feelings of discomfort or weakness that start shortly after the shot and last one to two days, but this is very uncommon.
As always, the best defense against the flu is to make sure children wash their hands often, avoid touching their nose, eyes and mouth and stand at least 3 feet away from infected people.
Dr. Lisa Thornton, a mother of three, is director of pediatric rehabilitation at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital and LaRabida Children’s Hospital. She also is assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago.
See more of Dr. Thornton's stories here.