Child getting flu shot

Should my child get a flu shot?

Dr. William J. Fisher is a board-certified pediatrician with Community Physician Network. To request an appointment with Dr. Fisher, visit his physician profile.

This a common question that faces many parents in the fall. For almost everyone 6 months and older, the answer is definitely yes. The reasons are simple:

  1. Influenza kills more kids in the US than all other vaccine preventable illnesses combined.
  2. The flu shot is very safe.
  3. Getting the flu vaccine helps us protect others, especially infants, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems that are more likely to die from the flu and who are not eligible for the flu shot, or do not respond to the flu shot.

"But every year I have gotten the flu shot I have gotten sick!"

I hear this every year, and there are two very good reasons for this misconception. The first is that the flu is given during the fall when many different viral vomiting and diarrhea illnesses are going around, especially after kids get back into school and start spreading germs like wild fire. The flu is not vomiting and diarrhea. What many people call the flu is actually gastroenteritis. The flu causes body aches, high fevers, headache, cough and a viral pneumonia often leading to secondary infections like ear infections and bacterial pneumonias. Vomiting and diarrhea are rare symptoms of influenza.

The second reason people have this misconception is due to how many flu shots are given (over 100 million in the US) and bad luck that is attributed to the shot. For instance, if I get my flu shot and then 10 minutes later drop my phone into the toilet or run a red light, is that because of the flu shot? Of course not, but if I get a fever later in the week, everyone would assume it was the shot. In reality, some of those fevers are because of the shot, but some of those fevers were destined to happen regardless of getting the shot because people get sick. 

"But what about all of those horrible preservatives in the flu shot - especially thimerosal!"

Thimerosal had been in almost all shots over the last 60 years as a safe preservative, and almost all adults over 30 grew up with thimerosal in their vaccines, without a problem. Unfortunately in the late '90s it became trendy to believe (without any data to support it) that thimerosal was causing autism. That claim was very odd since it had been used for 50 years at that point, and autism was only recently starting to increase in prevalence. Regardless, thimerosal was taken out of most vaccines to calm the public's nerves, but the unintended consequence was to make vaccines more expensive, because less preservative equals more expensive shots. Since 1999 several studies have shown that thimerosal and ethyl mercury do not accumulate in humans and do not have a toxic effect in the doses that were in vaccines. A few types of flu shots still have thimerosal, but they can be found without as well.

Often when I hear a parent's concerns about preservatives in vaccines, I will ask them if they are worried about all the preservatives and chemicals in Oreo cookies and Hostess products. Often after thinking about that, they realize that worrying about the small amounts of preservatives in the vaccines are the least of their worries!

The bottom line on flu vaccines is that even though they don't always work (last year they were 60 percent effective), in the US they save thousands of lives, cause very few serious side effects, and are the most responsible way to protect the people we love the most.