As headlines about the “tridemic” of RSV, flu, and Covid-19 circulate, and RSV and flu outbreaks cause schools to close, it’s understandable to feel like you simply can’t win on the sickness front. The good news is that it’s not too late to get your flu shot, or to get your children theirs, to keep everyone safe this flu season.
In the U.S., flu season usually runs through fall and winter, peaking from December to February. You’ve probably been wondering if you’re just more paranoid about viruses post pandemic, or if the flu really did start early this year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) flu surveillance report says that “early increases in seasonal influenza activity continue nationwide,” with southern regions of the country being hit hardest.
“The U.S. is seeing the highest flu hospitalization rates in a decade for this time of year, according to the CDC,” says Shalika Katugaha, M.D., system medical director of Infectious Diseases at Baptist Health in Jacksonville, Florida. “There are numerous factors contributing to the severe flu season. We are returning to pre-pandemic behaviors, like gathering, returning to work and school in person, and getting rid of masks. In the past two years, lockdowns and masking not only slowed the spread of Covid-19 but also slowed the spread of respiratory illnesses like the flu. Therefore, as a community, we have less immunity to the flu.”
So, if flu season started early, does this mean it’s too late to get your flu shot now? Experts agree that it’s never too late. (And even if you think it is, better late than never, right?)
Is it too late to get a flu shot?
Is anyone looking forward to more shots these days? No. But doctors agree it’s worth your while to get this one.
“It’s not too late to vaccinate,” says Katugaha. “Please get your flu vaccine today. Flu season will continue through March, with cases beyond that. So, you will still benefit from getting a vaccine now. Flu vaccines reduce the chance of severe disease, hospitalization, and death. Flu vaccines reduce the likelihood of getting sick from the flu. A plethora of studies show that flu vaccines reduce flu-related doctor visits and missed work and school. Flu vaccination is a priority, especially in context of high rates of spread of respiratory viruses.”
“You can get a flu shot anytime it is available,” Katie Lockwood, M.D., M.ED, attending physician at the CHOP Primary Care Network in Flourtown, Pennsylvania, tells Romper. “We are still early enough in the flu season that getting vaccinated now will offer you protection against getting the flu.”
Flu symptoms in kids this year
Each year, the flu virus mutates and adapts (which is why we need a new shot each year). So, what symptoms does this year’s flu bug cause?
“The predominant strain so far this year is H3N2, which can have vomiting and diarrhea associated with it,” says Lockwood. “Not everyone will have the same symptoms when they get the flu though. It can be hard to distinguish the flu from covid or even a common cold. A high fever, intense headache, and diarrhea are more typical of flu than a cold. Nasal congestion, sneezing, and sore throat are more common from flu than covid.”
In general, common flu symptoms include fatigue, headaches, muscle aches, fever, and runny or stuffy nose, according to the CDC. Katugaha notes that vomiting and diarrhea tend to be more common in kids with the flu than adults, and that children are usually the ones who experience severe illness from the flu.
“Children are particularly vulnerable to severe flu outcomes, so it is very important to get your child vaccinated,” she says. “One study found the flu vaccine reduces children’s risk of severe life-threatening influenza by 75%. Another study found that flu vaccinations reduced flu-related ER visits in children by half.”
How to help your child get through the flu
As with any viral illness, your child’s body just needs time to fight off the flu bug. As their immune system does its job, there are plenty of things you can do to help make your little one feel better. Home remedies are the most helpful, since the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) doesn’t recommend giving over-the-counter cough and cold medicines to children younger than 6.
“Keeping your child comfortable is important so that they can maintain their hydration,” says Lockwood. “This may include using acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain or fever. Offer sips of fluids throughout the day and hydrate with popsicles and high-fluid foods. Congestion and cough can be helped by using nasal saline and bulb suction, honey in a warm liquid if over age 1, steamy showers, and cool mist humidifiers.”
The flu vaccine is recommended for children 6 months and older, according to the AAP. You can make an appointment with your child’s pediatrician to get their flu shot (or request it at an appointment you already have on the calendar). Or, if the whole family needs one, you can schedule flu vaccine appointments online at major pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens.
Shalika Katugaha, M.D., system medical director of Infectious Diseases at Baptist Health in Jacksonville, Florida
Katie Lockwood, M.D., M.ED, attending physician at the CHOP Primary Care Network in Flourtown, Pennsylvania