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What's Your Cold and Flu IQ?

Pediatric health experts answer parents' top 10 questions about sneezy, sniffly cold-weather maladies.
By Christina Boufis
WebMD Magazine - Feature

Chances are your child will develop between eight and 12 colds every year during childhood, says Harley A. Rotbart, MD, pediatric infectious disease specialist at Children's Hospital Colorado and author of Germ Proof Your Kids: The Complete Guide to Protecting (Without Overprotecting) Your Family From Infections."That's because there are lots of [cold] viruses out there, and kids' immune systems haven't seen them."

The flu (also known as influenza) is pretty rampant as well. Between 5% and 20% of Americans will get the flu this year, and 20,000 children under age 5 will be hospitalized because of complications like pneumonia. "Influenza can make children more susceptible to catching a secondary bacterial infection that leads to pneumonia," explains Michael J. Smith, MD, MSCE, assistant professor of pediatrics in the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Division at the University of Louisville School of Medicine.

Did You Know?

Under the Affordable Care Act, many health insurance plans will provide free preventive care services, including checkups, vaccinations and screening tests, to children and teens. Learn more.

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What's a parent to do? We went to WebMD's online parenting communities and picked their top 10 questions about the cold and flu.

1.  What's the difference between colds and flu?

"They're caused by different viruses," says Rotbart. More than 100 varieties of the rhinovirus and hundreds of other viruses produce upper respiratory infections -- in other words, the common cold, says Smith. The flu, however, is caused by a much more limited number of influenza viruses. "They are tricky because they mutate every year," adds Rotbart. "That's why you need a flu shot every year."

In the early stages, flu symptoms are nearly identical to cold symptoms: runny nose, cough, congestion, and sore throat. The flu is "like a ramped-up version of a cold," says Rotbart. It comes on fast, and a flu patient is more likely than someone with a cold to have fever, chills, muscle aches, and fatigue. Plus, the cold's upper respiratory symptoms are typically worse than those of the flu.

One way to tell if your child has a cold or the flu? "A head cold is something that kids deal with but still run on the playground, wiping their noses on their sleeves," says Rotbart. "The flu frequently knocks kids for a loop and makes them not want to play at all."

2.  Will the flu shot give my child the flu?

"No. You cannot get the flu from the flu vaccine," says Smith.

The injectable vaccine is made from inactivated or dead virus. The inhaled nasal spray flu vaccine is a live weakened virus that can reproduce itself in the nose and throat, but "it doesn't cause the flu," says Smith. "It can give you a little bit of a runny nose and can lead to wheezing in some people who have asthma, so we usually don't give the nasal spray to adults or children with asthma."

If you're between the ages of 2 and 49 and otherwise healthy, you can ask for the nasal flu vaccine instead of the shot, says Rotbart. This option might be more comfortable for your child.

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