Taking protective steps against flu in children in the 2023-2024 flu season

Fall has finally arrived in the Northern Hemisphere, kicking off the new school year—and soon, the flu season in 2023, too.

These events are usually expected this time of year. However, fall 2022 kicked off an unusual flu season that saw an early rise in flu cases, as well as high numbers of hospitalizations due to the flu, COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). While no one quite knows to what extent these respiratory viruses will affect the general public, it’s expected that all three will be in circulation this fall.

And like everyone else, children are at risk of getting sick from these illnesses—including the flu.

While anyone can get the flu and develop serious complications from it, children younger than 5 years old are one of the age groups considered at high risk of influenza. The numbers of children who died last year because of flu-related illness were the highest since the 2019-2020 flu season.

If the flu season in 2023-2024 mirrors the heightened flu activity recorded last year, it’s even more important that all children who are eligible for a flu vaccine get a flu shot to protect them from the flu. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises everyone aged 6 months and above to get a flu vaccine every year, unless there are special circumstances.

Understanding flu in children and adolescents

Children and adolescents tend to make up the largest numbers of flu cases each year. As many as 20% to 30% of flu cases occur in children in a flu season.

In most cases, children should be able to recover from the flu within a week. Flu symptoms in children can be worse than in adults because children’s airways are smaller. This difference in children’s anatomy can make it harder for them to clear their airways during a viral respiratory infection.

Kids who are younger than 5 years old are at higher risk of developing serious complications from the flu, with kids who are younger than 2 years old being most susceptible. Estimates suggest that flu symptoms in children result in the hospitalization of about 20,000 kids each year.

Even though people don't always consider the flu a serious illness, it can also cause death in children. CDC data from late August showed that in the 2022-2023 flu season, 172 children under 18 years old died due to flu-related illnesses—the highest numbers since the 2019-2020 season, when 199 children and adolescents died from illnesses attributed to influenza. In prior flu seasons going back to 2004, about 80% of children who died from the flu were not fully vaccinated.