A Blog from Your Kaiser Permanente Pediatricians in Northern California

Girl looking at bandaid after getting flu shot from nurse

Questions Parents Ask about the Flu Vaccine

Many parents take their kids to get vaccinated against the flu every fall. I always tell them how glad I am – this is one of the most important steps you can take to protect your family!

Some parents have questions about the flu vaccine. To help me answer these, I’ve reached out to my friend and colleague, Dr. Ken Hempstead, a Kaiser Permanente Regional Vaccine Communication Lead. “Great parents ask great questions,” he said. I agree!

We’re happy to answer any of your questions. Here are the most common concerns parents have about the flu vaccine with Dr. Hempstead’s replies.

Does the flu vaccine work?
Yes. Every flu season we see different strains of the flu virus circulating and causing illness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention monitors flu activity worldwide and guides the choice of vaccine so that it closely matches the current flu viruses. Unfortunately, the viruses sometimes change quickly during the flu season so the vaccine may not always be a perfect match. But the flu vaccine does provide a level of protection that you wouldn’t have otherwise.

People who are vaccinated are less likely to get influenza at all. If they do get ill, vaccinated people will be less sick and less likely to get severe complications of the flu, such as pneumonia.

What’s the difference between “flu,” “influenza,” and a “cold”?
Both the flu and the cold are respiratory illnesses caused by viruses.

Influenza, or “flu,” are terms we use to describe a serious viral illness. It usually starts very quickly, causing high fevers, body aches, cough, congestion (and especially in young kids – diarrhea and vomiting). People feel really miserable with the flu! It typically lasts longer than a cold and is much more intense. The flu can cause you to miss an entire week of school or work.

Colds are milder and don’t last as long – your child may have a stuffy or runny nose and a cough, but usually not body aches and a high fever, like with the flu. But influenza is not just a bad cold. It’s also not the virus that causes “stomach flu” (just vomiting and diarrhea, usually only for a day).

While there’s no vaccine for the common cold or stomach viruses, there is one for the flu.

Is the flu vaccine really necessary?
Yes! As a parent, you protect your children every day. For example, you place your child in a car seat every time they ride in a car. We hope to never needthe protection of a car seat, right? But since we can’t predict if an accident will occur, we use car seats to protect our kids. The flu shot is similar – it’s another way of proactively protecting your child and your family.

Also, it’s very common for older people or those with weakened immune systems to become infected with influenza from a child. So as you protect your child, you’re also protecting other people you care about as well. We’re all in this together!

Can the vaccine give you the flu? 
No, a flu vaccine can’t give you flu.Most people don’t notice any side effects at all after they get a flu vaccine. If they do, these are almost always mild and temporary, such as a sore arm or achiness. Sometimes, people get a low-grade fever, headache, and muscle aches. This means the body’s immune system is responding positively to the vaccine – which prepares it to fight off the real influenza virus! But remember, there’s nothing in the flu vaccine that can cause long-term illness.

As a parent, Dr. Hempstead’s advice rings true for me, and I hope it’s answered your flu questions as well. We both know you’ll feel better this winter knowing your child is protected from influenza!

Find more resources for parents:

My Doctor Online has a Cold and Flu interactive website with expert advice – use it to find the nearest flu vaccine, treat symptoms at home, and know when to call your doctor.

Centers for Disease Control is an excellent and trustworthy source of more information about flu and the flu vaccine.