Influenza

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If your child is six months or older, it is recommended they get an influenza vaccine every year. Influenza vaccines are free for all children aged six months to under five years. Influenza vaccines are given as a needle, usually in the leg or arm. 

Your child can get an influenza vaccine either on its own or at the same time as their age-specific vaccinations. The best time to get an influenza vaccine is before the influenza season, which is usually June to September.

What disease does the vaccine protect my child against?

An influenza vaccine is the best way to protect your child against influenza, sometimes called ‘the flu’. Influenza is an illness caused by influenza viruses. The illness can be mild, but sometimes children can become very sick and need treatment in hospital.

You can read more about influenza below:

What are the symptoms of influenza?

If your child has influenza, they will probably have a fever and a dry cough, as well as a blocked or runny nose, sneezing, a headache and a sore throat. They may look and feel tired. They might have an upset tummy, and their muscles might feel sore.1

Although some of the symptoms are similar to a common cold, influenza is usually much worse and lasts longer than a cold.

How can my child catch influenza?

When someone with influenza sneezes or coughs, they send tiny droplets carrying the influenza virus into the air. If your child breathes in these droplets or touches a surface where they have landed and then touches their nose, mouth or eyes, they can catch influenza too.

Is influenza common in Australia?

Influenza is common in Australia. As many as four out of every ten children catch influenza each year in Australia.1 Influenza can spread more easily in places where children spend lots of time together, like childcare centres, playgroups and schools.

Why does my child need influenza vaccination?

Even if your child is usually healthy, influenza can make them very unwell. Influenza can lead to serious conditions like severe lung infections (pneumonia) or swelling in the brain (encephalitis).

Babies and children under five years are more likely to get severe influenza. They are more likely than adults and older children to need treatment in hospital.2

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and children who have health conditions (like asthma or a heart defect they were born with) are more likely to get so sick from influenza that they need treatment in hospital.

Very rarely, children can die from influenza. One study found between two and four children in every one million die from influenza.3 Because this number is hard to calculate accurately, the true number is likely higher.

As well as protecting your child from getting sick, influenza vaccination helps protect the people around you and your child. If you don’t catch influenza, you can’t spread influenza. This community protection is especially important for vulnerable people who can’t get the vaccine, like young babies (less than 6 months old) and people with low immunity.

How do influenza vaccines work?

Influenza vaccines work by training your child’s immune system to quickly recognise and clear out influenza viruses.

Influenza vaccines contain pieces of the influenza virus that are not alive and can’t give your child influenza. These pieces teach your child’s immune system to recognise influenza viruses and get rid of them. Your child can’t get sick from these pieces like they can from the whole virus.

Influenza vaccines protects your child against several types of influenza virus. The types of virus particles in the vaccine may change each year depending on which viruses are circulating.

When can my child get an influenza vaccine?

Your child can get an influenza vaccine from six months of age. The best time to get an influenza vaccine is in April or May, before the influenza season, which is usually June to September.2

How often does my child need an influenza vaccine?

Children need to get an influenza vaccine every year. This is because the types of influenza viruses circulating often change from year to year. Also, protection from an influenza vaccine generally lasts less than a year.

What do I need to do before our appointment?

There’s no need to do anything special to get your baby or child ready for influenza vaccination.

Children can usually get their influenza vaccine even if they are feeling a little unwell. If your child has a high fever or if you are worried they are too unwell to go ahead with vaccination, give your doctor or nurse a call. They will let you know if you should come in or if you need to make an appointment for another day.

What will happen when we get there?

Some parents take their children to their local general practice where a doctor (GP) or practice nurse can give an influenza vaccine. Some vaccination clinics, run by nurses, also offer influenza vaccination. The majority of Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services also offer influenza vaccination. Vaccination appointments can run differently in different places but this is a rough guide to what you can expect on the day.

  • Appointments usually begin with a health check. Your doctor or nurse will ask you how you and your child are going. They will ask if you have any questions for them. 
  • Next, the doctor or nurse will get the vaccine ready. Some doctors will ask you to go to another room where a nurse who is specially trained will vaccinate your child. Influenza vaccines are given as a needle.
  • Most doctors and nurses will suggest holding your child on your lap during vaccination. If you find it upsetting, ask a family member or friend to do it for you. If you can’t bring anyone with you, let your doctor or nurse know. They may be able to arrange someone to stand in for you.
  • The needle usually goes in the child’s arm or leg. The doctor or nurse will be as quick and gentle as they can.
  • The doctor or nurse will ask you to stay at the clinic for about 15 minutes after vaccination. This is so they can make sure everything is OK before you and your child leave.

How can I make it easier for my child?

No matter how gentle your doctor or nurse is, needles hurt! Most children cry a little after they get a needle. The good news is there are things you can do for your child to make needles feel less painful:3

  • Holding or cuddling babies and children triggers the release of pain-relieving hormones, so you can hold your child firmly, for example in a chest-to-chest position, before, during and after the needle.
  • For babies, there are pain-relieving substances in breast milk so, if your baby is breastfed, you can breastfeed during or straight after the needle. 
  • Sucking helps relieve babies’ pain. If your baby is no longer breastfeeding, you can offer a dummy or have a bottle of formula or milk ready to go.
  • Local anaesthetic patches that numb the skin where the needle goes in may relieve pain.4 If your child is 12 months or older, you can ask the doctor or nurse to use one. It comes as a cream on a sticky patch and takes about half an hour to work. 
  • Distractions help reduce pain for older babies and children. When it’s time for the needle, you can distract your child with a toy or an activity like reading or singing. Some parents give their children a phone or a tablet to play with.
  • Taking big breaths may calm your child and make the needle hurt less. Bring along toys like pinwheels or bubble-blowers that encourage your child to take some deep breaths while the doctor or nurse gives them their needle. You may need someone to help with this while you hold your child.

Take a look at our video: How can I make it easier for my child?

How will my child feel after the vaccinations?

For a day or two afterwards, some children may feel a little unwell. The most common reactions are:

  • redness, soreness or swelling at the spot where the needles went in
  • mild fever (temperature)
  • slight headache
  • feeling achy
  • tiredness.1

Usually these symptoms last between 12 and 24 hours and then get better. These side-effects are very normal, and mean that your child’s immune system is responding to the vaccine, which is exactly what is supposed to happen.

Read more about these common reactions and how you can look after them at home

If you are worried about your child, you can get help from:

  • your doctor
  • or your nearest emergency department
  • or by calling Health Direct on 1800 022 222.

Are there any rare side effects I need to know about?

Serious side effects are very rare, but they can happen and some parents want to know more about them before they vaccinate their children.

Febrile convulsions

Fits or seizures (febrile convulsions) after influenza vaccination are rare. Less than two in every 100,000 children under two years of age experience a seizure after being vaccinated for influenza.5 Febrile convulsions are scary for parents to see, but children usually recover quickly without any long-term effects.6 Febrile convulsions can happen when a child’s temperature goes up very quickly, and stop once their temperature stops rising. 

Children are more likely to get a fever and have febrile convulsions from influenza itself. In one study, four in 100 children who were treated in hospital for influenza had a febrile convulsion.7

Anaphylaxis

‘Anaphylaxis’ is a severe allergic reaction to one of the vaccine ingredients. About one in every one million children who get a vaccine has this reaction.8 Anaphylaxis usually happens within a few minutes of vaccination, before you and your child leave the clinic. Your doctor or nurse knows what to do to help a child having an anaphylactic reaction recover quickly.

Guillain–Barré syndrome

Guillain–Barré syndrome is a rare disorder where the immune system damages nerve cells. It usually begins with tingling and weakness in the feet or legs and can lead to temporary paralysis. Less than one out of every one million people who get an influenza vaccine get Guillain–Barré syndrome. Children don’t get the disorder as often as older adults. People infected with influenza are more likely to get Guillain–Barré syndrome than people who get the influenza vaccine.2

When do we come back for more vaccinations?

The first time your child gets an influenza vaccine, they will need a second dose four weeks later. The second year your child gets an influenza vaccine (and every year after that), they will only need one dose.

Your child will also need to get their age-specific vaccinations. It is important that babies and children get vaccinated on time to make sure they are protected as early as possible. 

If your child’s age-specific vaccinations are due just before the influenza season (usually June to September), they can get these vaccines and an influenza vaccine at the same appointment.

What if I still have questions?

If you still have some questions about influenza vaccinations for your child, write them down and make an appointment with your nurse, your doctor or your health worker so you can ask them.

  1. National Centre for Immunisation Research & Surveillance. Influenza vaccines for Australians: Information for Immunisation Providers (NCIRS Fact sheet: March 2019). National Centre for Immunisation Research & Surveillance: Sydney, Australia. Available at: http://www.ncirs.org.au/sites/default/files/2019-06/Influenza-fact-sheet_31%20May%202019_Final_1.pdf
  2. National Centre for Immunisation Research & Surveillance. Influenza vaccines - Frequently Asked Questions (NCIRS Fact sheet: March 2019). National Centre for Immunisation Research & Surveillance: Sydney, Australia. Available at: http://ncirs.org.au/sites/default/files/2019-06/Influenza_FAQs_31May2019_Final_0.pdf
  3. Taddio, A., Reducing pain during vaccine injections: clinical practice guideline. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 2015. 187: p. 975-982. Available at: http://www.cmaj.ca/content/cmaj/187/13/975.full.pdf
  4. Lee, V.Y., et al., Improving vaccine-related pain, distress or fear in healthy children and adolescents–a systematic search of patient-focused interventions. Human Vaccines & Immunotherapeutics, 2018. 14(11): p. 2737-2747. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6314412/
  5. Hambidge, S.J., et al., Safety of Trivalent Inactivated Influenza Vaccine in Children 6 to 23 Months Old. JAMA, 2006. 296(16): p. 1990-1997. Available at: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/203797
  6. Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI), Australian Immunisation Handbook. 2018, Australian Government Department of Health: Canberra. Available at: https://immunisationhandbook.health.gov.au
  7. Dawood, F.S., et al., Complications and associated bacterial coinfections among children hospitalized with seasonal or pandemic influenza, United States, 2003-2010.(Report). Journal of Infectious Diseases, 2014. 209(5): p. 686. Available at: https://academic.oup.com/jid/article/209/5/686/887068
  8. Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA), Guidelines: vaccination of the egg-allergic individual. 2017, ASCIA: Sydney, Australia. Available at: https://www.allergy.org.au/hp//papers/vaccination-of-the-egg-allergic-individual
  9. Li-Kim-Moy, J., et al., Australian vaccine preventable disease epidemiological review series: Influenza 2006 to 2015. Communicable diseases intelligence quarterly report, 2016. 40(4): p. E482. Available at: https://www1.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/cda-cdi4004f.htm