NEWS

Flu Shot May Help Lessen COVID Symptoms in Children, Study Shows

doctor vaccinating child

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Key Takeaways

  • The flu vaccine can't prevent COVID-19 infection, but it may help to reduce the risk of serious illness.
  • A recent study found that children who had their current flu shot were less likely to have COVID-19 symptoms, respiratory problems, or severe illness.
  • The CDC recommends that everyone age 6 months and older get an annual flu shot.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends an annual flu vaccination for everyone age 6 months and older. Now, there’s an even greater incentive for parents to make sure their kids get their shot. A recent study showed that it may reduce children’s risk of symptoms and severe illness if they get COVID-19.

Although children seem to experience less severe COVID-19 symptoms than adults, kids with compromised immune systems or underlying health conditions have a higher risk of severe COVID-19 symptoms.

Study Findings

Researchers from the University of Missouri analyzed the medical records of more than 900 children who were diagnosed with COVID-19 between February and August 2020. Their findings, published in the journal Cureus, revealed that the children who had their current flu shot were less likely to have COVID-19 symptoms, respiratory problems, or severe illness.

Kids who received the pneumococcal vaccine were also less likely to have COVID-19 symptoms. Infants and children between the ages of two and 59 months routinely receive this vaccine to protect them against 13 subtypes of Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria, which causes invasive pneumococcal disease like meningitis and pneumonia.

Cara Natterson, MD

It makes sense that the immune system boost generated by a vaccine against one virus could have the bonus of protecting against other viruses.

— Cara Natterson, MD

In a news release, study author Anjali Patwardhan, MD, professor of pediatric rheumatology and child health at Missouri School of Medicine, said it’s known that the growth of one virus can be inhibited by a previous viral infection. “This phenomenon is called virus interference, and it can occur even when the first virus invader is an inactivated virus, such as the case with the flu vaccine,” she explained.

Previous studies have looked at cross-benefits of various vaccines, and reached similar conclusions. But this research is particularly important, because there’s not yet an approved COVID-19 vaccine for kids.

Currently, both Pfizer and Moderna are testing the vaccine on adolescents, with plans to include younger children in the clinical trials later this year. However, that means a vaccine might not be offered to young kids until 2022.

Jessica Madden, MD

Although children can still get the flu after getting vaccinated, they are less likely to develop viral pneumonia, need to be hospitalized, be admitted to the intensive care unit, and/or die from the virus.

— Jessica Madden, MD

Of the new research, Cara Natterson, MD, pediatrician, author, and co-founder of OOMLA, says that “it make sense that the immune system boost generated by a vaccine against one virus could have the bonus of protecting against other viruses."

Jessica Madden, MD, board-certified pediatrician and neonatologist and medical director of Aeroflow Breastpumps, highlights a limitation of the University of Missouri study. “The number of kids who had severe or critical illness in this study were so small (less than 10 out of 905) that I am not sure we can draw meaningful conclusions about the flu vaccine’s effects on pediatric SARS-CoV-2 infection from this study alone,” she says.

However, Madden refers to research showing that adults who receive the flu vaccine may also have a lower risk of hospitalization from COVID-19.

“We do know that getting vaccines boosts our innate immune systems, which are our bodies’ first line of defense against all viral infections,” Madden says. “So it’s possible that the innate immunity triggered by the flu vaccine helps to protect us from getting COVID-19. I am interested to see future research about this.”

Cara Natterson, MD

When kids (along with their parents and grandparents, too) get flu shots, they reduce their likelihood of needing hospital-based care, and given that COVID-19 has overwhelmed hospital systems, this benefit turns out to be enormous.

— Cara Natterson, MD

Why Is the Flu Shot Important?

COVID-19 aside, it’s important for kids to get the flu shot to stop them getting severely ill from the influenza virus. “Although children can still get the flu after getting vaccinated, they are less likely to develop viral pneumonia, need to be hospitalized, be admitted to the intensive care unit, and/or die from the virus,” explains Madden.

The flu infects millions of people and accounts for tens of thousands of deaths each year. But this year, the stakes are even higher. “In the midst of a devastating global pandemic, we need to do everything we can to unburden the medical system,” Natterson says. “When kids (along with their parents and grandparents, too) get flu shots, they reduce their likelihood of needing hospital-based care, and given that COVID-19 has overwhelmed hospital systems, this benefit turns out to be enormous.”

Cara Natterson, MD

It’s heartening to think that vaccinating for flu might add an extra layer of protection against the even deadlier SARS-CoV-2 virus.

— Cara Natterson, MD

In other words, we simply can’t rely on the medical system to provide the care necessary to people struggling with a bad flu, because this year there is far less room in emergency departments and on hospital wards. “It is far wiser to prevent the infection in the first place than to gamble on getting sick and having extremely limited access to care,” Natterson says.

Natterson points out that the safety mitigations in place to protect from COVID-19—namely masking and social distancing—are also protective against seasonal illnesses like flu. “During Australia’s winter (summer in the U.S.), these steps were credited with a nearly non-existent flu season, and we expect the same to be true here if people continue to mask up and spread out,” she explains.

What This Means For You

The flu vaccine is widely available—including in many doctor’s offices, clinics, health departments, and pharmacies.

The CDC recommends getting a flu vaccine before flu viruses begin spreading in your community, i.e. in early fall. However, the vaccine should be offered to people of all ages throughout the flu season, into January and later. Speak to your primary care doctor about getting your child vaccinated, and make a plan to do so again when the next flu season rolls around.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Who needs a flu vaccine and when. Reviewed January 25, 2021.

  2. Patwardhan A, Ohler A. The flu vaccination may have a protective effect on the course of COVID-19 in the pediatric population: when does severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) meet influenza?. Cureus. 2021;13(1): e12533. doi:10.7759/cureus.12533

  3. University of Missouri School of Medicine. Study shows flu vaccine lessens COVID-19 symptoms in children. February 4, 2021.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Key facts about seasonal flu vaccine. Reviewed January 25, 2021.