Nasal spray flu vaccine for children – everything you need to know

It’s flu season and flu vaccination time. Now, there’s a nasal spray vaccine for children instead of the typical ‘flu jab’. Here’s everything you need to know about what it is, how it works and if it has side effects – with expert advice from Dr Philippa Kaye and Dr Ranj Singh

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Chances are your child’s school has sent you a letter asking if you’d like them to have the new nasal spray flu vaccine, called Fluenz.

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Basically, instead of an injection a.k.a. the dreaded ‘jab’, a school nurse or doc will pop a few sprays of the nasal spray up your little one’s nose, and then they’ll be protected from the flu.

Sounds simple! But we know lots of you will have pressing questions. And maybe even a few concerns about how this new vaccine works.

So, we’ve asked 2 of our fave docs: MFM’s resident GP Dr Philippa Kaye, and This Morning’s Dr Ranj Singh, to bust those myths and provide some much-needed honest answers…

Why do children need to get a flu vaccine?

As Dr Ranj points out, it’s because the flu is actually pretty nasty – even nastier than the horrible colds we often mistake for the flu – and can often be dangerous.

“Firstly, we know from research done by [vaccine makers] AstraZeneca… of around 2,000 parents, that there’s a bit of a misunderstanding around what flu is, with just over 50% of parents thinking it’s similar to a bad cold.

“Actually, we know that medically it’s definitely not, it’s potentially much more serious, and that’s why we’re so keen for people to protect themselves and get vaccinated.”

What’s the difference between the nasal spray and the flu ‘jab’ injection?

The obvious difference is that it may be much less scary for children who don’t like needles.

“The vaccine is a nasal spray, so no needles!” confirms MFM’s Dr Philippa. “It is a live attenuated virus, which means it contains a tiny amount of a weakened form of the virus so that the immune system recognises the virus and you become immune.”

Dr Ranj adds: “It’s far easier to administer, it’s far more comfortable, and it’s much less scary.”

Who can get the nasal spray flu vaccine?

Dr Philippa tells us: “The nasal flu vaccine is available for children from 2 years old until year 5 of primary school in England and Wales, until year 6 of primary school for Scotland and Northern Ireland. 

“From reception upwards the vaccination is generally done at school so you are likely to receive a consent form and information from school, for younger children it is through your GP surgery.”

It’s slightly different in Scotland and Northern Ireland, adds Dr Ranj, “so make sure you check your local services.”

It’s also being rolled out to more and more children every year.

Are there any children who shouldn’t have the nasal spray flu vaccine?

Most kids are recommended to have the vaccine. As Dr Philippa says: “Children are offered the flu vaccination because they are prone to complications from the flu, so vaccination helps keep them safe!!”

There may, though, be some instances where your child might be offered the injectable vaccine instead, for example:

  • if they has severe asthma or a similar condition
  • if they live with someone currently undergoing chemo
  • if they’ve ever had a severe allergic reaction to egg or egg protein.

Do speak to your GP or a medical professional if you have any concerns.

Can the nasal spray flu vaccine make children sick?

Not a vaccination period goes by without hearing someone say, ‘Well, my son had the vaccine 2 years ago and was ill for 3 weeks after, but he was fine beforehand so don’t tell me it wasn’t the jab.’

This can cause you to spin headfirst into a whirlpool of panic about the possible repercussions of the flu vaccine.

No need to panic at all, says Dr Ranj, but yes – it is possible that your child might get a bit unwell after the vaccine. Likely, this’ll just be some side effects.

Dr Ranj tells us these side effects will mostly be minor, and are more like cold symptoms than anything else, such as a runny or blocked nose.

“It’s actually very common, and much less serious than getting flu itself, which can land you in hospital,” he says.

Remember that the flu is much worse than a bad cold that persists for a couple of weeks.

He also shares that children are likely to catch things around this time of year – so for some people, there will be that awkward, coincidental timing.

“Usually, around the time we vaccinate against things like flu, there are germs and viruses floating around, that are likely to cause that sort of illness, so becoming unwell around the time of vaccination could be purely coincidental, and there will be cases where that happens.”

Can the nasal spray flu vaccine cause the flu?

Nope, the nasal spray flu vaccine absolutely, 100% cannot give you the flu. As Dr Ranj explains: “It contains the virus that causes flu, but a weakened version of it.

“It still stimulates your immune system to build an immunity the way a natural infection would do, but it does not cause flu, and it CANNOT cause flu.”

If your child does get any side effects or has symptoms after their nasal spray flu vaccine, Dr Ranj urges you to report that back to the school and your GP. He says all that information is monitored, and collated.

Does the nasal spray contain pork gelatin – and what does that mean for Jewish, Muslim and vegan families?

Yes, the nasal spray flu vaccine does contain pork gelatin. It’s used as a stabiliser. For the record, you can see the full list of ingredients on the manufacturer AstraZeneca’s website.

This does pose a problem for a few groups, namely those who follow Judaism and Islam, where pork products are forbidden, as well as those who choose to live a vegan lifestyle, where the consumption/using of animal products is not allowed.

It’s worth noting that in our research, we’ve noted prominent organisations in the Jewish community say that the use of pork gelatin is acceptable in this instance, and that it’s OK for your child to have the spray.

We have also noted that some Islamic organisations have said the opposite. The use of pork gelatin in this instance is considered haram (forbidden).

If you would give your child the nasal spray, but feel conflicted because of your religious beliefs, Dr Ranj says:

“I’d urge people to consult the AstraZeneca website to find out what’s in the vaccine, and if they have religious concerns, to speak to their religious organisation and find out what the official line is.”

Indeed, we’d also suggest you speak to a senior member at your place of worship who you trust, to seek counsel on the subject. We’d also advise you to use your own judgement, and do what you think is best for your child.

For vegan families, we would also suggest you use your own judgement, and make whatever decision you think is best for your little one ?

What if I don’t want my child to get vaccinated against the flu at all?

Well, then, you don’t have to. That is your right as a parent.

If your school sends you a letter asking for your consent to give your child the nasal spray, respond and say you don’t give consent for the procedure.

As kindly as possible, we would reiterate once more that the National Health Service recommends that most children get this vaccination, not only to protect them but others around them, from getting the flu.

Can I protect my child from the flu in other ways?

There are a few extra things you can do to protect your child from getting the flu like: 

  • being careful around people who have flu
  • practicing good hand hygiene, as flu spreads by contact
  • looking after your family’s immune systems with lots of sleep, a healthy diet and regular exercise
  • stopping smoking at home, as that increases the risk of respiratory illness.

And the final word goes to Dr Ranj: “I would always urge parents that if your child is eligible or if your child falls into one of the high-risk groups, then you should get vaccinated, because it’s really important… it’s far more important to get your child vaccinated, if you can.”

Dr Phillipa Kaye is on Twitter, and check out her official website. Dr Ranj Singh is supporting AstraZeneca’s Share Good Times Not Flu campaign.

Image: stock image used

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