Every winter parents brace themselves for the arrival of dreaded flu symptoms. So should you get your child vaccinated?
All healthy children aged two to 16 will be offered the flu vaccine by the NHS in the course of the next few years.
"The vaccine is now available for all healthy two to three-year-olds," says Professor Nick Phin, Public Health England flu expert.
"The plan, which is just being finalised as we speak, is to also offer it to four-year-olds next winter, then roll it out across the first couple of years in secondary school, so we can offer the flu vaccination to all healthy children aged two to 16."
Should children be vaccinated against flu?
"It is something that all parents should consider," says Nick.
"Clearly vaccination is a matter of choice, no one is forced to get a vaccine. But there's increasing evidence that a lot of admissions to hospital of primary school-aged children with fever are influenza related, so trying to avoid that would be good.
"Also, a common complication of flu in children is a painful ear condition called Otitus media which is very distressing for children and for their parents. Preventing children getting flu could hopefully have an impact on the number of children suffering from painful sore ears."
What is flu?
Flu is caused by the influenza virus. It can be a very unpleasant illness in children causing fever, stuffy nose, dry cough, sore throat, extreme tiredness and aching muscles and joints, often lasting for several days. Some children can suffer from a very high fever and may need to go to hospital for treatment. Complications of flu can include bronchitis, pneumonia or an ear infection.
Does the vaccine protect against colds too?
"Unfortunately not," says Nick. "There are a multitude of viruses that can cause similar symptoms, such as coughing, fever, aches and pains, and unfortunately the vaccination can't protect against them all.
"But we know it is effective against a virus that causes a significant number of illnesses during the winter period."
No needles please?!
"This is one of the more painless vaccinations you can get, as no needles are involved," says Nick.
"The vaccine given in a nasal spray, which is squirted up both nostrils, one at a time. The feedback we've had from both parents and children has been very positive, as it's quick and doesn't usually cause any distress."
Will the vaccination suppress children's immune systems?
"Children are exposed to hundreds of thousands of bacteria and viruses every day, so their immune systems can cope with being exposed to a vaccination," says Nick. "Giving the vaccine will not have an adverse effect on the immune system."
Are there any side effects associated with the vaccine?
The nasal spray flu vaccine has very few side effects. The most common side effect is a slightly runny nose for a short time. Other possible side effects include: high temperature, headache, feeling slightly unwell or loss of appetite. As with all vaccines, in rare cases there's a small chance of a severe allergic reaction.
You cannot 'catch' the flu from the vaccine - it contains live, but weakened, forms of flu virus that do not cause flu in children who receive it.
Are there any children who shouldn't have the vaccine?
Yes, the vaccine isn't recommended for children who
* Are aged below two years. The nasal spray vaccine is not licensed for children aged under two, as the effectiveness of flu vaccines in very young children is uncertain.
* Suffer from severe asthma, or who are wheezing on the day they are getting the vaccination. "However, most children with asthma can get the vaccination as long as their asthma is well controlled and they're not wheezing," explains Nick.
* Are allergic to eggs or any part of the vaccine.
"Fertilised hens' eggs are used in the process of creating the vaccine, so there is a slight chance that a little bit of the the egg protein will be present in the vaccine," says Nick. "So children with an egg allergy, or indeed an allergy to any of the things you get in a vaccine such as the antibiotics to preserve it, shouldn't be given the vaccine."
* Have a condition that severely weakens their immune system.
Children who have been vaccinated should also avoid close contact with people whose immune systems are severely weakened, because there's an extremely remote chance that the vaccine virus may be passed on to them.
The good news is that the more eligible' children who are immunised, the less chance there is that the flu virus will be passed on to children who can't have the vaccination.
How can I get the vaccine for my child?
Children will be offered the flu vaccine once a year. If your child is eligible for the vaccine you'll be automatically contacted by your GP or your child's school in September/October. To be most effective the vaccine should be given in October or November before flu viruses starts to circulate.
If you don't hear anything, or you want more information about the immunisation, talk to your GP, practice nurse or your child's school nurse.
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