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The parents' guide to the flu vaccine

Child flu vaccine
This autumn all children in Reception to Year 6 (as well as those aged two to four) will be offered a free flu vaccine. We explain the facts parents need to know about the 'jab'.

Anyone who has ever had proper flu knows just how debilitating it can be.

Far removed from the average common cold, it can knock you out for a week or more, with symptoms including a high temperature, tiredness and weakness, aches and pains, headache and a chesty cough.

In children, flu can be even more severe, with the risk of extra complications. Yet around a third of parents think that flu is just a severe cold, and that their child will bounce back within a couple of days.

To help protect them, the NHS is extending its childhood vaccination programme this year. In total, over five million children will be offered the flu vaccine.

Why give your child the flu vaccine?

We’ve all experienced the misery of having a sick child: not only is it difficult to see them distressed and uncomfortable, but changing your plans to accommodate time off school can be tricky, too. But vaccinating your child against flu has more benefits than just avoiding a week of illness.

Flu itself is extremely unpleasant for children and adults alike, and while children are often thought to be more resilient to illness, they can suffer the same symptoms as adults, including fever, chills, aching muscles, headaches and a sore throat. 

Children are also more vulnerable to developing a secondary infection such as middle ear infections, bronchitis and pneumonia. In rare cases, these complications can be fatal. The flu vaccine doesn’t guarantee that your child won’t get the flu, although if they do, it’s likely to be milder and they should recover quicker.

Vaccinating your child also has benefits for the population as a whole. The more people are vaccinated, the less likely it is that there will be a widespread outbreak, as fewer people will catch the virus and pass it onto others.

Having your child vaccinated will help to protect other people that they come into contact with, and could be particularly important if they’re exposed to other people who are at greater risk of the illness, such as elderly people, pregnant women and those with other health problems.

Kirstie Gibson, mum to Stuart, five, decided to have her son vaccinated after passing up the offer of the vaccine last year – after which Stuart came down with flu. ‘He kept saying, “Mummy, I can’t swallow,” and it broke my heart,’ she explains. ‘It’s not nice to see your child so unwell and know there’s nothing you can do about it, and after seeing first hand how ill he got, I would recommend that parents protect their children against flu.’

What does the vaccine protect against?

Each year, the viruses that are most likely to cause flu are identified and a vaccine is developed that matches them as closely as possible. Because the flu vaccine is different every year, your child should still have this year’s vaccine even if they had it last year.

Which children are eligible?

This year, the vaccine will be offered to all children who were aged two and three on August 31 2021.

All children in Reception and Years 1 to 6 in England will also be able to have the vaccine, as well as secondary school students in Years 7 to 11.

If you have a child aged six months to two years, or up to the age of 17, with a long-term health condition that puts them at greater risk of flu, such as asthma or heart problems, they will also be offered the vaccine.

How is the flu vaccine given?

Although it's often referred to as a 'jab', the majority of children aged two and over will be given the flu vaccine as a nasal spray. This is not only quick and painless, without the need for needles, but it's also because easy to administer, performs highly in safety checks and is actually more effective than the flu injection.

The ideal time for children to receive the flu vaccine is from October until early November. Before school age, children are offered the vaccine through their doctor’s surgery, so you will need to make arrangements to take your child along. In most areas, children in Reception to Year 6 will be given the nasal spray at school through the local school nursing team. If you would prefer to take your child to have the vaccine yourself, you should contact your GP.

Some children are not advised to have the nasal spray, including those with severe asthma or an egg allergy. They may be able to have the injectable flu vaccine instead, so you should speak to your GP about this. If your child has a blocked or runny nose, or has had a wheeze in the past week, it’s advised that you postpone the vaccine until their symptoms have cleared up (and have been clear for three days, in the case of wheezing). If this means they miss the school vaccination date, you should contact your surgery to find out about having it done out of school.

What if you don’t want your child to have the vaccine?

If your child is due to have the flu vaccine at school, you’ll be informed about the arrangements by their school and will be asked to sign a consent form. Side effects of the vaccine are rare, and it can’t cause flu in your child as it uses weakened strains of virus.

Some parents, however, prefer not to have their child vaccinated, and there is no obligation for you to do so. ‘My son is in good general health, and I would expect him to recover from the flu with no major problems, so I don’t see the need for him to have the vaccine this year,’ says Marie Philips, mum to Evan, six. If you don’t sign or return the consent form, your child will not be vaccinated at school.

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