Should my child get a flu shot?

You may be thinking about getting vaccinated against the flu this year. Considering that 10% to 20% of Canadians will be affected by the influenza virus each year, that's not a bad idea.

Canada's National Advisory Committee on Immunization advises all Canadians over age 6 months to get a flu shot. That's because vaccination is one of the most effective preventive measures you could take. And with the "shot in the arm" that a vaccine can give, you're less likely to be one of the 20,000 hospitalizations or 4,000 deaths blamed on the flu each year.

Still, you may be unsure. Perhaps answers to a few questions might make your decision easier:

Should I be vaccinated against the flu this year? Probably yes – unless you happen to be 6 months of age or younger, are severely allergic to chicken eggs (the vaccine is grown in eggs), or have had severe reactions to the vaccination in the past. If none of those apply to you, you should definitely be vaccinated if you fall into particular risk categories:

  • young children between 6 and 59 months of age
  • people who are 65 or older
  • pregnant women
  • people with chronic diseases such as heart or lung disease, kidney disease, diabetes, anemia, cancer, or HIV or other immune-suppression diseases
  • people who are morbidly obese (BMI greater than 40)
  • those who live in a nursing home or care facility
  • caregivers and health care workers
  • those at high risk of complications who travel to areas where flu virus is circulating
  • People of First Nations descent

Does the flu vaccine really work? About 60 to 80% of healthy people who get a flu shot will be protected from the virus. How well the vaccine protects you depends on whether the viruses covered by the vaccine, which is predicted by researchers ahead of time, matches the viruses causing the flu that season. The effectiveness of the vaccine also depends on individual factors such as age. Those who still get the flu usually get milder symptoms. After being injected with the vaccine, it can take a couple of weeks to take effect. If you catch a flu virus during that wait period you won't be protected.

When should I get vaccinated? You could get a flu shot at any time during flu season between November and April. But because of the time needed for the vaccine to take effect, you should get the vaccination early before the peak infection time.

How much will I have to pay for a flu shot? Most Canadian provinces and territories offer all their residents aged 6 months or older free vaccines. Check with your doctor to determine whether you are eligible for a free flu shot. In most doctors' offices and clinics, flu shots will cost about $10 to $15. Currently, influenza vaccinations eligible under provincial health benefits may also be administered by trained pharmacists in certain provinces.

Is there any risk involved in getting a flu shot? The benefits of prevention outweigh the risks with a flu shot. Rarely, people will experience allergic reaction. More often, they will experience no side effects or perhaps some soreness, redness, or swelling at the spot where the shot was given. Contrary to myth, a flu shot cannot cause the flu, since most of them do not contain any live virus. Those that do contain a small amount of weakened virus to stimulate your immune system for protection against the virus, but cannot cause the flu itself.

Will I need to be vaccinated against new strains of flu, like the H1N1 virus? Flu shot requirements change every year. To help protect yourself against new flu strains, it is important to get re-vaccinated every year. For example, during the flu season of 2009, Canadians faced a double or even triple shot of protection (one or two shots to combat the new H1N1 flu virus and one to address the usual strains of seasonal flu).

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