Flu seems like old news: a familiar winter enemy we've all been dealing with for years.
But this year, more children than ever are being offered the free flu nasal spray vaccine, which may come as a surprise to some parents. Below, we answer all your questions about why this is — and what to expect.
1. Why does my child even need protection from flu? I’ve had flu loads of times and it’s never been that bad.
It's a pretty dangerous misconception that flu isn't that bad! While you may have a bad cold and thought it was flu, flu itself can be much worse for some people. The former can be caused by any of 2,000+ different common cold viruses. The latter is caused by several types of influenza virus, which can be beastly.
Flu can also cause serious illness. Most healthy adults will recover from flu in about a week; but in vulnerable groups, it can increase the risk of developing serious illnesses like bronchitis and pneumonia. In the worst cases, a bad bout can lead to a stay in the hospital, permanent disability, or even death.
What's more, it looks like flu season will be *especially bad* this year. Modelling done by the Academy of Medical Sciences suggests that winter influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) could result in twice as many hospital admissions and deaths than in a "normal" year, and could coincide with an increase of COVID-19 infections and their associated long-term consequence. Yikes.
2. OK, but why do I need to get my kids vaccinated? Can't I just be extra careful about hygiene?
Even if you're super on it with handwashing, kids are experts at catching colds and flu. Every winter, thousands of children who are eligible to be vaccinated against flu are seen by a GP or have a stay in hospital because of flu. They're also very good at spreading them to other people so vaccinating is the best way to protect kids and anyone vulnerable whom they come into contact with (e.g., granny and grandpa).
3. What about natural immunity though?
Vaccines are a much safer way for your immune system to produce antibodies. They teach your body how to create the specific antibodies it needs to fight off certain viruses (e.g., flu) without you actually having to go through the disease itself. Why go through a bad bout of flu when you can protect yourself from it in advance? Getting your kids vaccinated each year is the surest way for them to stay up to date against flu. Because flu viruses evolve all the time, the World Health Organisation (WHO) tracks them and picks the ones that look like they could become the more worrisome so they can be targeted by the next round of vaccines. Take that, flu!
The more people who are vaccinated in your community, the more your community benefits, as it is harder for viruses like flu to spread, full stop. As soon as people stop getting vaccinated, these viruses spread through communities quickly. This is a big deal: The WHO previously listed vaccine hesitancy as one of the biggest threats to global health.
4. My child *hates* needles. What should I do?
Don't worry! Almost all children are now able to get the vaccine as a nasal spray (up the nose). It's quick and painless, and has an excellent safety record.
The nasal spray vaccine is squirted up each nostril and is quick and painless. And don’t worry if your child gets a runny nose, sneezes, or blows their nose after receiving it. The vaccine is absorbed quickly in the nose so even if your child sneezes immediately after, there's no need to worry that it hasn't worked!
The nasal spray flu vaccine gives children the best protection against flu and it's free on the NHS for all children aged between 2 and 3 years (as of Aug. 31, 2021), school-aged children from reception to year 11, and any child between 2 and 17 who has a long-term health condition.
If your child has a long-term health condition or has never had a flu vaccine before, they will be given 2 doses if they're under 9 years old. These doses are given four weeks apart.
Children aged between 6 months and 2 years with a long-term health condition are at higher risk from flu. So they'll be offered a flu vaccine injection instead of the nasal spray. There are also some older children and those with certain medical conditions who may not be able to have the nasal spray. They will be offered an injected vaccine instead.
5. What even goes into the nasal spray? How does it work?
The nasal spray contains viruses that have been weakened to prevent them from causing flu but will help your child to build up immunity. When your child comes into contact with these flu viruses, it helps the immune system to fight off the infection.
If you want to know the full list of ingredients of the flu nasal spray, go to the NHS website.
6. Are there any risks associated with the flu vaccine?
Vaccines go through rigorous safety testing before they're allowed to go anywhere near the public. Every vaccine is also approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) before release.
Even after going into use, they're still constantly monitored. There's also a "yellow card" system operated by the MHRA that anyone can use to report a suspected vaccine side effect that's out of the norm.
Side effects from the nasal vaccine may commonly include a runny or blocked nose, headache, tiredness, and some loss of appetite. Those having the injected vaccine may get a sore arm at the site of the injection, a low-grade fever, and aching muscles for a day or two after the vaccination. Serious side effects with either the nasal spray or the injection are extremely rare.
7. Is there any reason a child shouldn't have a vaccine?
Very few children or adults can't have a vaccine, but there are a few exceptions.
• anyone who's had a serious allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to a previous dose of the vaccine.
• people who've had a serious allergic reaction to ingredients in the vaccine. (If your child has a serious allergy, you can check ingredients at medicines.org.uk!)
• people with weakened immune systems (e.g., because of cancer treatment) who might not be able to have some vaccines.
Anyone who vaccinates you or your child will be trained to deal with allergic reactions and can treat them immediately.
The live nasal spray flu vaccine given to children has a very low egg protein content and can be safely given to most of those with an egg allergy! However, if your child has an egg allergy that has resulted in a hospital admission to intensive care, you should seek the advice of their specialist and they may need to have the nasal vaccine in hospital.
If your child is unwell on the day, you may be asked to wait until your child is better before having the nasal spray flu vaccine. If they have a very blocked or runny nose, it might stop the vaccine from getting into their system. But make sure you book them back in ASAP to get their vaccine when they are feeling better.
8. I have children of multiple different ages. Will they all need a vaccine?
Flu vaccines don't work well in babies under 6 months of age and aren't recommended for them. That is why it's really important for pregnant women to get vaccinated!
Otherwise, most children are being offered a free flu vaccine this year, including:
• all children who are between 2 and 3 years of age on Aug. 31, 2021.
• all primary school–aged children.
• all year 7 to year 11 secondary school–aged children.
This is alongside any children with a health condition that puts them at greater risk from flu.
9. Can my child have the flu vaccine at the same time as other vaccines?
Yes, absolutely! The flu vaccine can be taken at the same time as all other childhood vaccines.
10. Okay, I'm sold. When and where should I get my child vaccinated?
The sooner, the better! Autumn is the best time to get a flu vaccine as it's before the virus starts to spread.
If your child is aged 2 or 3 by Aug. 31, 2021, you should receive an invitation for your child to have it at their GP surgery. Alternatively, you can contact them directly to make an appointment.
If your child is in school (between reception and year 11), they'll be offered their NHS flu vaccine there. Schoolchildren with a long-term health condition can get their vaccine from your GP surgery instead of having it at school if you prefer.
Homeschooled children should be invited to get their vaccine by your local healthcare team. If you do not hear from them, ask your child's GP where you need to take them for a vaccine.