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Can Childhood Cancer Patients Get the Flu Vaccine?

Flu shot is really important during pandemic

Most childhood cancer patients are encouraged to get a flu shot each year.

An annual flu shot is recommended for all children older than 6 months including those receiving treatment for cancer. Organizations who advise this include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

Exceptions would be patients who are not likely to respond to the flu vaccine although they are unlikely to be harmed by it. Patients not likely to respond include those who have received strong chemotherapy or those who have received anti B-cell antibodies within 6 months.

If patients are undergoing certain treatments, doctors may recommend waiting to get the vaccine. Transplant, cellular (CAR T-cell) therapy, and gene therapy patients may get a flu shot 6 months after their infusion. If there is a flu outbreak in the community, they may receive a flu shot 4 months after transplant.

Why is the Flu Vaccine Important?

The flu vaccine protects people from developing the flu. It causes a person to develop antibodies that recognize and fight flu viruses. A vaccine strengthens the immune system to protect the body from illness. It builds up the body’s natural defenses (immunity) against infection.

People need a flu vaccine once a year because the makeup of the vaccine is different each year. Influenza viruses are constantly changing. The body’s immune response decreases over time.

Getting a flu vaccine is even more important during the 2020-2021 flu season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Flu and COVID-19 will be spreading at the same time. Both are respiratory illnesses. 

There is not yet a vaccine for COVID-19.

Most people who get flu recover in a few days to less than 2 weeks. But some people develop more serious symptoms or complications. Some complications can be life-threatening.

Sinus and ear infections are examples of moderate complications from flu. Pneumonia is an example of a serious flu complication.

Flu vaccination is especially important for people with certain medical conditions such as asthma, heart disease, and diabetes. Flu also can make these chronic medical problems worse. For example, people with asthma may experience asthma attacks while they have flu. People with heart disease may become worse because of the flu.

These same chronic conditions increase the risk of serious complications of COVID-19.

To protect pediatric cancer patients, it is important that all family members and health care providers get the flu vaccine. Young children and patients with weak immune systems are at higher risk for life-threatening complications from the flu. Having all family members and caregivers vaccinated helps create an extra layer of protection around the patient.

Some people may still get the flu after being vaccinated. Even if you do get the flu, you may not get as sick because your body is better able to defend itself.

What is the Flu?

Flu is short for influenza. It is a respiratory illness caused by a flu virus. Flu symptoms include fever, chills, cough, sore throat, runny nose, body aches, headaches, and fatigue. In severe cases, flu can cause breathing problems, pneumonia, or other life-threatening complications.

Which Flu Vaccine Should My Child Get?

There are 2 main ways the flu vaccine is given:

  • Flu shot (needle injection)
  • Nasal spray (Flumist®)

Your doctor will recommend the best flu vaccine for your child. Children with weakened immune systems should not get the nasal spray because it contains a weakened live form of the flu virus. People who live in the same household as your child should not receive the nasal spray either.

The flu shot is made with dead (inactivated) flu viruses. It is safe for people with cancer. It may be given at least 2 weeks before chemotherapy or between chemotherapy cycles.

There are several different types of flu shots. Most are given in the muscle of the upper arm. Infants and very young children may get the flu shot in the upper thigh.

When is the Best Time to Get the Flu Vaccine?

If possible, get the flu shot in September or October. But getting one any time during the flu season can help protect you. In general, flu cases usually start to rise in October, peak in December through February, and can last until May.

It takes about 2 weeks to develop an immune response after the flu vaccine.

In certain cases, children may need 2 doses of the flu vaccine. Your doctor will tell you if this necessary.

does not endorse any branded product mentioned in this article.

Reviewed: September 2020