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It’s cold and flu season, which means day-care facilities and classrooms will soon be filled with sick children performing the latest version of that annual hit, cough cough, sneeze sneeze, achoo. So how do you keep your children safe from the common cold and flu this winter?

For the common cold, there is no magic pill. The best prevention is simple: frequent hand washing, cleaning and disinfecting commonly touched surfaces, and getting plenty of sleep, exercise and a healthy diet full of good nutrition and vitamins (including probiotics and vitamin D).

To avoid the flu, though, there’s a very effective method: the flu vaccine, in the form of a shot or the needle-free FluMist. Getting a flu vaccine of any type is better than not getting one. Flu vaccines are recommended for everyone 6 months and older. To help protect newborns who are too young to get their own vaccines, make sure everyone else at home or anyone who cares for them is vaccinated.

Other than a sore arm, side effects from the flu shot are rare. And contrary to popular belief, you can’t catch the flu from the flu shot. If you’re wary of needles or looking for an alternative to the traditional flu shot, the nasal spray version is approved for healthy children 2 years and older. Although the American Academy of Pediatrics still recommends the flu shot as the best defense, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is not voicing a preference this year and many experts think the FluMist looks promising for protecting kids against the flu. The main difference, other than how the vaccine is given, is how it is made. The nasal spray contains a live, inactive virus and the shot is made with either a killed or manufactured form of the virus. A few flu seasons ago, the nasal spray was determined to be not as effective, and then it was taken off the market for two years. Now it’s back, and only time will tell which vaccine performs better this flu season, so whichever you choose (or your doctor recommends), just get one.

If this is their first year receiving the flu vaccine, and your child is younger than 9, they will need two doses administered one month apart. One bit of good news: The flu vaccine can be given at the same time as other childhood immunizations, so it won’t put your little one behind schedule.

Although the vaccine is updated each year — to combat an influenza virus that changes frequently — it is not a cure-all. Some people who get the flu vaccine will still catch the flu, but usually they have a milder case and are less likely to develop serious complications, such as pneumonia or death. It’s also important to remember that the flu vaccine protects against influenza (a respiratory infection), not other viral causes of coughs and colds. It also doesn’t protect against stomach viruses, often called the “stomach flu,” which aren’t actually a flu at all but a different virus that causes vomiting and diarrhea.

In past years there had been concern about giving the flu shot and nasal FluMist to children who are allergic to eggs, because the flu shot contains a very tiny amount of egg protein. This is no longer the case, as the amount of egg protein in the vaccines has decreased significantly over the years. No serious reactions have been reported after administration of egg-based flu shots and nasal spray vaccines in individuals with egg allergy. It is now recommended that all patients 6 months and older with egg allergy (including those with a history of an anaphylactic reaction to eggs) can receive any flu vaccine.

If you bypass the vaccine, for one reason or another, be prepared for possible trouble. If you are otherwise healthy, the flu is probably the worst you will ever feel, with fever, cough, sore throat, headache, chills and muscle aches. Most people are sick for a few days to a week, but some get much sicker and may need to be hospitalized. The flu still causes thousands of deaths each year, and last year 178 children died of the flu in the United States (nearly 80 percent of those did not receive the flu vaccine).

Tanya Altmann is a practicing pediatrician who founded Calabasas Pediatrics and a mom of three. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the author of several books, including “Baby and Toddler Basics: Expert Answers to Parents’ Top 150 Questions.” Candace Katz is a board-certified allergist and immunologist at Kaiser Permanente in Pleasanton, Calif., and a mom of two.

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