Children and the Flu

It’s not always easy to tell your child has the flu. The illness comes on fast and is more intense than a cold. Kids tend to feel worse during the first 2 or 3 days they're sick.

Symptoms include:

  • A high-grade fever up to 104 degrees F
  • Chills and shakes with the fever
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Headache and body aches
  • Dry, hacking cough
  • Sore throat
  • Vomiting and belly pain

Some parents mistake the flu for a stomach bug. That’s because unlike adults, children with the flu can have nausea, stomach pain, and vomiting.

What Causes It?

Three main types of influenza viruses can give you the flu. Types A and B cause the yearly outbreaks. Type C leads to mild, random cases.

How Does It Spread?

The flu is highly contagious, particularly when kids share close quarters like they do in school classrooms. It spreads when they inhale droplets that are coughed up or sneezed by an infected person, or when they come in direct contact with mucus or spit from someone who has the flu.

Kids can spread the flu a day before their symptoms start, and 5-7 days after they get sick. It can easily move from kid to kid as they share things like pencils, toys, computers, remotes, spoons, and forks. Hand-to-hand contact is another main method.

How Do You Avoid the Flu?

The best way is to get a yearly vaccination. The CDC says all people 6 months and older should get one.

Healthy children over 2 years old who don't wheeze or don't have a history of asthma can get the nasal spray influenza vaccine. Otherwise, children 6 months and older should get a flu shot.

Pregnant women and caregivers of children younger than 6 months or of children with certain health conditions should get the vaccine.

Can the Flu Lead to Other Problems?

Yes. Those can include a sinus infection, ear infection, or pneumonia. Call the doctor if your child's fever lasts more than 3 to 4 days. Also call if she complains of trouble breathing, ear pain, a stuffy nose or head, a cough that won’t go away, or she seems to be getting worse.

Young children under age 2 -- even healthy children -- are more likely than older children to be hospitalized from the complications of the flu.

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Can Kids Take Antiviral Medicine?

If the doctor thinks your child is likely to have a complication from the flu, he may give her antiviral medicines like oseltamivir (Tamiflu) or zanamivir (Relenza).

They can help if she gets them in the first 2 days of getting sick. They may even shorten the flu by 1 or 2 days. In some cases, they can prevent it. They stop the virus from reproducing, so it can’t spread. Still, the best way to prevent the flu is to get the vaccine.

Antibiotic drugs don’t work. They treat bacterial infections, and the flu is a viral infection.

Do Any Home Remedies Work?

Yes. These treatments can help your kid feel better:

  • Plenty of rest
  • Plenty of liquids
  • Using acetaminophen or ibuprofen to lower fever and ease aches -- you can get both in children's versions.

Don’t give aspirin to children or teenagers. It can boost their risk of Reye's syndrome, a rare disorder that can harm their liver or cause brain damage.

The FDA and drug makers say not to give over-the-counter cough and cold medicines to children under age 4. The American Academy of Pediatricians goes higher -- they warn against using them for children younger than 6. Talk to your doctor before you give your child one of these products.

If you have a very young child with congestion, use a nasal bulb to remove mucus. Or spray three drops of saline nasal spray into each nostril.

Some children are more likely to have serious complications with the flu. Talk to your doctor as soon as you know your child is sick if she’s younger than 5 or has an ongoing (chronic) health condition like asthma or other lung disease, heart condition, or diabetes.

When Should I Take My Child to the Hospital?

Go to the emergency room or call 911 if she has one of the following symptoms:

  • She has trouble breathing that doesn’t get better after you suction and clean her nose.
  • Her skin turns bluish or gray skin.
  • She seems sicker than in any previous episode of illness or doesn’t respond like normal -- for example, if she doesn’t cry when expected or make good eye contact with you, or if she’s listless or lethargic.
  • She isn’t drinking fluids well or shows signs of dehydration, like absence of tears, crying less, peeing less (dry diapers), is cranky, or has low energy.
  • She has a seizure.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 26, 2015

Sources

SOURCES:

American Lung Association: "Cold and Flu Guidelines: Influenza" and "Influenza Fact Sheet."

FDA: "Influenza: Vaccination Still the Best Protection."

CDC: "Seasonal Influenza" 

American Academy of Pediatrics, "The Flu: A Guide for Parents." 

Medline Plus: "Common Cold," "Flu."

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