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The question: At what age can I start taking my kid to get a flu shot? Do you recommend it?

The answer: In my pediatric clinic, we start administering the flu shot in October and try to offer the vaccine to as many children and parents as possible. Babies as young as six months old are encouraged to get vaccinated.

Ensuring your child gets a flu shot is one of the easiest and most important ways a parent can protect their child from serious illness. The Public Health Agency of Canada estimates that the flu kills between 4,000 and 8,000 Canadians every year. Many more are hospitalized. This doesn't even take into account the cost of lost work days for parents or the inconvenience of missing school. Like most illnesses, children and the elderly are at greatest risk, as are those with underlying medical conditions like asthma, diabetes and heart problems.

It is important to understand that the flu vaccine does not prevent the common cold, but rather provides protection against a more sinister illness: influenza. I often hear people mistakenly talk about having "the flu" when they experience sniffling, coughing or a sore throat caused by the common cold virus. Influenza by contrast, causes more severe symptoms including high fever, chills, sweats and muscle pains. If you think you are going to die, it's probably influenza!

I have found many people hold the common misconception that the influenza vaccine will give you a mild case of the flu. While it is possible to get a low fever and pain at the injection site following vaccination, this should not be confused for influenza. Fortunately these symptoms are short lived and respond well to over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen and ibuprofen.

The great news for children, and those adults with an aversion to needles, is that the flu vaccine is now available as a nasal spray. A miniscule amount of vaccine is sprayed as a fine mist into each nostril and voila, you're done. This vaccine goes by the name FluMist and is available by prescription. FluMist is approved for children two years of age and older, and is not appropriate for children with severe asthma. I'm a big fan of this vaccine as it is far easier to administer than an injection, and actually provides better protection against the flu than the traditional injectable vaccine.

In my experience, most family physicians and pediatricians will give flu shots to their patients, although you may have to make a special request if you want FluMist. In my clinic, we're happy to administer the flu vaccine to parents and siblings, although this may not be the case in all pediatric offices. Many pharmacies and community clinics hold flu vaccine clinics this time of year that can be a convenient option for some families.

Parents: Please don't procrastinate. You should protect your child against influenza today.

Dr. Michael Dickinson is the head of pediatrics and chief of staff at the Miramichi Regional Hospital in New Brunswick. He's a staunch advocate for children's health in Atlantic Canada through his involvement with the Canadian Paediatric Society.

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