What you need to know about the flu vaccine for children


by Lorna White |
Updated on

This winter, the NHS is launching its biggest ever flu vaccination campaign. As well as offering free vaccinations to toddlers and primary school children aged 2-10 years, as covered by previous campaigns, this year secondary school aged children, including those in Year 11 are also eligible for a free jab for the first time.

Flu viruses are common around winter time. It's especially important for young children and babies to have the flu vaccine as it not only prevents them from catching flu, it also prevents them from spreading it. While the world of vaccines can sometimes seem a bit scary, the flu jab is very routine. The flu vaccine for toddlers and babies is actually a nasal spray, and helps to boost your child's immune system so that they can fight off the virus.

There are two forms of flu vaccine, a nasal spray and an injected flu vaccine. These days, most GPs will be offering the nasal spray for children, and will recommend this one to parents. The nasal spray form of vaccination has fewer side effects and is definitely a much nicer way for a toddler to receive the vaccination – no needles and screaming fits in the doctor’s office.

Some children will have the injected flu vaccine if they have a weakened immune system or other long term health conditions.

The flu vaccine has been designed to be extremely safe and there are numerous benefits to your toddler having it.

The pros of the flu vaccine for kids

Ultimately, the flu vaccine hugely lessens the chances of your toddler catching flu if he comes into contact with it, offering protection against flu and helping to stop the spread of it.

‘The vaccine nasal spray contains live, but inactive, viruses and is given as a single squirt up each nostril,’ says GP Dr Sarah Brewer. ‘Your child can breathe normally while the vaccine is being given – he won’t need to inhale or sniff. If your little one hasn’t previously had the flu vaccine, he may need a second dose after four weeks.’

‘The vaccine nasal spray contains live, but inactivate, viruses and is given as a single squirt up each nostril'

"The thing that will come up with flu is, 'I didn't think it was a problem with children' - but that's just not true," says Prof David Elliman from Great Ormond Street Hospital. 'Young children are more likely to be admitted to hospital with flu than any other age group.'

The symptoms of flu aren’t nice (your little one can expect a fever, chills, aching muscles, headaches, a stuffy nose, dry cough and a sore throat), but there can be some nasty complications, too. Bronchitis, pneumonia and ear infections can happen after a bad bout of flu, sometimes requiring hospital treatment.

And in some serious cases, both children and adults have died from side effects from flu – the vaccine is expected to prevent at least 2,000 deaths and lead to 11,000 fewer hospitalisations in the long run.

The most common side effects of flu vaccination

Most vaccinations have side effects, albeit milder than getting the virus itself. Your child may be a bit upset, even if the nasal spray is a bit nicer than an injection.

The nasal spray could prompt some mild side effects – the most common reaction being a runny nose.

If your child has a flu jab rather than a nasal spray the area where the needle goes in may look red, swollen and feel a bit sore for 2 to 3 days.

Another common side effect in babies or young children is that they may feel a bit unwell or develop a high temperature for 1 or 2 days.

‘As the vaccine is absorbed very quickly through the nose lining, it will still work even if your child has a runny nose, sneezes or blows their nose straight after being vaccinated,’ says Sarah. ‘A few children may have a temperature, headache or feel slightly unwell, but this is minor compared with full blown flu.’

If your little one displays any signs of these side effects, try not to worry as they should clear up naturally within a few days.

How to treat side effects of the flu vaccine

‘For children who develop nasal congestion, a nasal spray such as Stérimar could be used to gently cleanse the nose from the day after vaccination – but check with your doctor or pharmacist first,’ says Sarah.

If he has a fever, you can give your tot infant paracetamol or ibuprofen to bring down his temperature and if you’re worried, trust your instincts and speak to your GP for advice or call NHS 111.

Very rarely, children experience allergic reactions (known medically as anaphylaxis) to the vaccine – but the chance of this happening is around one in 900,000. If this does happen, it will be obvious within a few minutes of the vaccination being administered and every nurse or GP is trained to spot the symptoms and deal with it immediately – usually with a shot of adrenaline.

There are a few children who should avoid the nasal spray vaccine, but may be advised to have the injectable vaccination instead. If your little one has severe asthma, an egg allergy or a severely weakened immune system then the nasal spray isn’t recommended. You can read more about this from the NHS UK.

Advice for parents on attending routine vaccinations

The NHS advise that routine vaccinations for babies, pre-school children and adults are continuing as normal.

Changes have been made to make sure it's safe for your child to have the flu vaccine at GP surgeries or at school. These changes include social distancing, hand washing and wearing protective equipment.

It's important to go to your appointments unless you, your child or someone you live with has symptoms of coronavirus.

If you're concerned about any of the ingredients in the vaccine talk to your GP or doctor, who may be able to suggest an alternative. For example pork gelatine is a common ingredient in a lot of medicines and vaccines, but there are some injectable flu vaccines which do not contain pork gelatine.

How to stay well this winter

  • Make sure you get your flu jab.

  • Keep yourself warm. Heat your home to least 18 degrees C or (65f) if you can.

  • If you start to feel unwell, even if it’s just a cough or a cold, then get help from your pharmacist quickly before it gets more serious.

  • Look out for other people before it gets more serious

For more information on whether your child can get a free flu vaccine and where to go, check the relevant NHS or government website.

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