Flu season, which runs throughout the fall and winter, has the potential to wreak havoc on your family as well as your child’s report card.

More than 22 million school days are lost to the common cold, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Millions more lost days are attributed to influenza, an infection of the nose, throat, and lungs.

Children who have the flu should not go to school because they risk exposing other students to the illness. Infected kids tend to miss a week or more of classes, often falling far behind in their schoolwork.

Prevent the Flu

Children are at a higher risk than adults to catch the flu, but parents can drastically reduce their child’s risk with a flu vaccine. The CDC recommends annual flu shots for children 6 months through 18 years of age, as well as for adults age 50 and older.

“It’s preventable,” says Joyce Allers, clinical nurse manager for school health at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. “The vaccine allows children to get the immunity without having to suffer the disease.”

Flu shots are usually available through your child’s pediatrician’s office as well as the public health department and walk-in community health clinics. Parents often prefer to get their child vaccinated at the doctor’s office. But walk-in clinics, some of which are now in pharmacies, are also safe options. In some cases, vaccines are even available at schools and churches. “The goal behind community settings is to make the flu vaccine as accessible as possible,” says Dr. Jeanne Santoli, the CDC’s deputy director for immunization services.

A flu shot isn’t a substitute for other preventive measures. Teach your children to cover their mouths when they sneeze. Be sure to wash your hands frequently, and make sure your kids do, too. It’s also best to avoid people who are sick and to toss a tissue after one use.

Don’t Avoid the Pediatrician

Some parents are reluctant to take their healthy child to the pediatrician’s office for a flu vaccine, fearing that exposure to sick children will be riskier than going without the shot. You should share this concern with your child’s pediatrician, Santoli says, reiterating that parents should get their children vaccinated.

As a mother of four, Allers says she understands parents’ concerns. She offers this advice: First, remember that you’re exposing your child to all kinds of germs at the library, the grocery store, school, and the playground. It’s a fact of life that kids get exposed to germs.

Next, keep in mind that pediatricians often have a separate waiting room for healthy children. Allers has a few strategies to make a pediatric visit even safer. “I bring my own toys, so my kids aren’t playing with the toys in the waiting room....You can bring your own little bag of tricks,” she explains. She also sometimes signs in and then retreats to the hall or the car with her child; “I leave my cell phone number so they can call me when it’s our turn.”

Finally, ask whether your pediatrician’s office is sponsoring a flu shot day or other event that will attract only healthy children, Allers suggests.

If Your Child Gets Sick

Even if you take precautions, your child could still get those telltale symptoms: fever, headache, dry cough, sore throat, and achy muscles. Some people, especially children, can also have stomach problems and diarrhea, according to the CDC. A cough may last two weeks or even longer.

If your child gets sick and you suspect it’s the flu, call your child’s pediatrician. Other symptoms the CDC says to look out for include trouble breathing, bluish skin, lack of interest in fluids, confusion, or improving and then getting worse.

Make sure your child gets plenty of rest and fluids. If your child is older than age 2, you may give medication to relieve symptoms—but you should never give aspirin, according to CDC guidelines, because it may be linked with the neurological disorder Reye’s syndrome. Your pediatrician might prescribe antiviral drugs, which should be given during the first two days of your child’s illness. And your child should stay home from school until her temperature has been normal for 24 hours.

For most people, the flu is a dose of misery that seems to last forever, but it usually ends up running its course in about a week. As anyone who has had the flu will tell you, it’s a misery worth preventing.


Flu Shot Facts

  • Influenza is rarely fatal, but 83 children died from the flu in the United States in 2007, says Joyce Allers, who manages the school nurse program at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

  • Young children, pregnant women, elderly people, and those with chronic health problems such as diabetes and asthma are most at risk for having a serious case of influenza, according to the CDC.

  • The best time to get a flu shot is when it becomes available, usually in early fall. But flu season peaks in January and February, so even a vaccination later in winter can offer protection.

  • If you or your child feels ill, check with a doctor before being vaccinated.

  • Infants up to 6 months old cannot be vaccinated, so it’s important for anyone who has contact with a newborn to be vaccinated.

  • All caregivers should be vaccinated. This is especially important for parents, siblings, and day-care workers who come in contact with a chronically ill child.

  • A nasal spray is available for most needle-averse people between the ages of 2 and 49. Those with asthma or other chronic health problems should get the shot, however, as should children younger than age 5 who have a history of wheezing.

  • Children being vaccinated for the first time will need two doses.

  • Talk to your child’s doctor before giving the flu vaccine to a child with an egg allergy or with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a condition that causes temporary paralysis and is believed to be triggered by a bacterial infection. Over the years, studies have been done to determine whether there is a link between the flu vaccine and Guillain-Barré; the CDC reports that only one study found a connection and that the risk is very small—just one person out of 1 million.

Journalist Patti Ghezzi covered education and schools for 10 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She lives in Avondale Estates, Ga., with her family, which includes husband Jason, daughter Celia, and geriatric mutt Albany.