What Canadian parents should know about flu shots for their kids

It's more important that ever that children under 5 get their flu shot. Here's why.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

A doctor making a vaccination to a child. Children are among those at greatest risk of developing severe illness from the flu. (Getty)
Children are among those at greatest risk of developing severe illness from the flu. (Getty)

It's officially fall, and that means cold and flu season are in full force.

Finding yourself bedridden from the flu is uncomfortable at any age, but for kids five and younger, influenza season can be especially dangerous — and even deadly.

New data from the Public Health Agency of Canada's (PHAC) FluWatch reported unprecedented numbers of influenza-related pediatric (patients 16 or younger) hospitalizations and deaths during the latest flu season. The 2022/2023 season saw 1,792 pediatric influenza associated hospitalizations, finding children between the ages of two and nine accounted for 56 per cent of these hospitalizations and 48 per cent of pediatric ICU admissions.

On top of this, there were 10 influenza-associated pediatric deaths in the same year. This was a drastic increase from the 2021/2022 flu season, which reported only 303 pediatric influenza-associated hospitalizations and no deaths.

"The flu is not just a cold," Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, a pediatrician, health communication officer and CEO of Eastern Ontario Health Unit, tells Yahoo Canada.

"The flu is caused by an influenza virus, A or B — usually it's A — that starts like a cold, but has fever, chills, body aches, difficulty breathing, and [can require] hospitalization. Unfortunately, it can be deadly even in young children."

In 2022, Canada  saw a surge in the number of pediatric COVID-19, flu and RSV cases. (Getty)
In 2022, Canada saw a surge in the number of pediatric COVID-19, flu and RSV cases. (Getty)

According to the doctor, there are a few reasons for these seemingly drastic numbers.

With everyone inside during the COVID-19 pandemic and masking, rates of respiratory infections like the flu and RSV dropped. "And then all of a sudden [these restrictions] were removed," Roumeliotis said. With many young children having not been vaccinated against the flu during the pandemic, "we saw a big onslaught of flu in the community that was looking at people who were vulnerable and were not vaccinated or immune."

Another reason may be lower vaccination rates overall. In Roumeliotis's own community, less than five per cent of eligible children received the flu shot last year. This is, in large part, due to people making the assumption that — unlike other vulnerable populations like senior citizens — children aren't as heavily affected by the flu.

"That's not true," Roumeliotis claimed. "What we do see is that, particularly children less than five years of age are at higher risk of complications [due to] the flu."

Read on for everything you need to know about getting your child vaccinated this fall.

Why does my child need a flu shot?

Research has shown getting the influenza vaccine can mitigate the response to the flu and in many cases, be life-saving.

A 2022 study from Clinical Infectious Diseases found children who received the influenza vaccine were 75 per cent less-likely to experience severe, life-threatening influenza.

Another study, looking at influenza seasons between 2010 and 2014, showed that the risk of death due to influenza was reduced by 51 per cent in children with higher-risk chronic health problems, and by 65 per cent in healthy children.

What flu vaccines are available for kids in Canada?

Covid19 vaccine in injection ready for vaccination. The syringe represent various healthcare and medicine concepts.Studies have shown annual flu shots help to reduce severity of illness and community transmission. (Getty)
Studies have shown annual flu shots help to reduce severity of illness and community transmission. (Getty)

Currently, the influenza vaccine (also known as the flu shot) is available free of charge to anyone in Canada and can be found in many pharmacies, including ones in drug stores like Shoppers.

A list of vaccines used for influenza in Canada is available here.

FluMist is a nasal spray option approved for people between the ages of two and 59, but it's not publicly funded in some provinces.

​​At what age is it safe to start vaccinating my child?

According to Roumeliotis and other experts, the flu shot is safe, available, and effective for children who are six months of age and older.

When should I get my child vaccinated?

The earlier the better.

The Canadian Pediatric Society recommends the influenza vaccine be given as soon as it's available at the start of flu season, between October and December.

Are there any side effects to vaccinating my child against the flu?

According to PHAC, children may experience mild side effects after the flu shot.

Some of these effects may include:

  • fussiness

  • a mild fever

  • being sleepier than usual

  • some pain and/or swelling at the injection site

"Severe reactions are very, very rare," Roumeliotis emphasized. These rare reactions may include: breathing problems, hoarseness or wheezing, hives, and dizziness.

Most importantly, "I want to tell people that [the vaccine] will not give you the flu. It will not cause a cold or anything like that," Roumeliotis said.

Does my child need to get the flu shot annually?

It's recommended kids get the influenza vaccine at the start of flu season. (Getty)
It's recommended kids get the influenza vaccine at the start of flu season. (Getty)

In short: yes.

Because the flu virus changes every year, a previous year's flu shot may not be able to protect against the new, circulating virus.

"What we do see is that it's better than not getting vaccinated," Roumeliotis claimed. "So it might make the difference between: you'll get the flu, but you won't end up in hospital."

As for concerns that getting the flu shot every year will lower its effectiveness? Data from the Canadian Pediatric Society supports annual vaccination.

What if my child is too young or unable to be vaccinated?

If your child is under the age of six months and is unable to be vaccinated for the flu, COVID-19 or RSV, the best option is to limit exposure to large crowds, Roumeliotis advised.

This means not toting your newborn to a 20,000 person hockey game — something the pediatrician has seen.

"Particularly during flu season and respiratory season, try to keep them home as much as possible, not to be mixed with a lot of people," the doctor said. "The more viruses that are out there, the babies are more susceptible."

Other routine things include staying at home when you're sick, coughing into your sleeve, washing your hands, disinfecting surfaces, and ensuring the family around the child is vaccinated.

The takeaway

It's important for parents to get their children six months and older the flu shot, not only for their children's health and safety, but for those in the community as well.

"Parents underestimate the flu," Roumeliotis claimed, "and we're trying to reverse that. We're trying to improve that knowledge and foster increased uptake among young children, particularly less than five years of age."

In addition to the flu this season, kids are also at risk of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a virus that starts like a cold but goes into the small [bronchial] tubes and causes bronchiolitis.

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