What to Do When Your Child Has the Flu

Can you spot the flu in your child? If you know its symptoms, causes, and treatments, that will help you care for your little one.

What causes the flu?

There are three types of viruses that cause it: types A, B, and C. The two that cause the yearly epidemics are influenza A and B. Public health efforts target these types of viruses. Influenza type C is usually milder with few to no symptoms.

How does it spread among children?

The flu spreads quickly in tight quarters, so schools and nurseries tend to be breeding grounds for these viruses. Your child may catch one if he gets close to a sick person who is coughing or sneezing. Or he might handle infected items like doorknobs, pens, pencils, or toys, and then touch his eyes, nose, or mouth.

Children have a higher chance of getting a flu virus, because their immune systems aren’t as developed as adults’.

How long does it last?

Children are already contagious a day before they show symptoms, and that makes it hard to keep the virus from spreading. They stay contagious for up to 5 days after they get sick. Most kids get better within a week, but they may still feel weak for up to a month.

What are the symptoms?

For kids they're generally worse than a cold. Your child may feel sick suddenly and, even though flu is a respiratory illness, he may feel achy all over.

Other symptoms include:

How can I help my child avoid catching it?

The best way to protect your son or daughter is to get a flu vaccine every year. The CDC says healthy children 6 months or older should get the shot or the nasal spray or the shot. They should not be used in children with compromised immune systems or who are allergic to the flu vaccine or any of its ingredients. Do not use the nasal spray for the 2017-18 flu season.

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The vaccine is considered safe even for children with egg allergies. If your child has severe egg allergies (anaphylaxis), make sure the shot is administered by a health care official who can treat a severe allergic reaction -- either at your doctor's office, a hospital, a clinic, or a health department. Many children with egg allergies are at risk for complications from the flu, so it’s important for them to get the flu shot. 

Thorough hand washing may also lower the chance of infection.

Are there ways to treat the symptoms?

There’s no cure for the flu, but your doctor may suggest over-the-counter medicine to ease symptoms.

Here are some home remedies that also may help your child:

  • Layers of clothes to remove as needed for chills and fever
  • Lots of fluids to prevent dehydration
  • Plenty of rest
  • Acetaminophen or ibuprofen to help with aches and bring down fever. Never give aspirin to children (it may lead to Reye’s syndrome).

Your doctor may suggest antiviral drugs to help your child feel better quicker. Doctors typically prescribe oseltamivir (Tamiflu), which comes in liquid and capsule forms, to children younger than 1. They tend to prescribe zanamivir (Relenza), an inhaler, to children 7 and older who don’t have chronic conditions like asthma.

Antiviral drugs work best if you give them to your child within the 48 hours after symptoms appear.

Are there complications?

The flu can be more dangerous for children.

Kids younger than 2 have the highest risk of flu-related complications like pneumonia, dehydration, and seizures, which can lead to brain damage. Chronic health conditions, such as asthma or diabetes, add to the risk.

Should I take my child to the hospital?

Get emergency care if your child:

  • Has blue skin or lips
  • Has serious or constant throwing up or stomach pain
  • Has trouble breathing or is breathing fast
  • Isn’t drinking enough
  • Is very irritable
  • Is very sleepy, not waking, or not interacting with you
  • Has symptoms that improve and then get worse
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on August 07, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

CDC: “Children, the Flu, and the Flu Vaccine.”

FamilyDoctor.org: “Colds and the Flu”

Flu.gov: “Children & Infants.”

H. Dele Davies, MD, pediatric and infectious diseases consultant, University of Nebraska Medical Center

Healthychildren.org: “The Flu: Seasonal Influenza 2014-2015.”

John Hopkins Medicine: “Influenza (Flu) in Children.”

KidsHealth.org: “Influenza (Flu),” “Is it a Cold or the Flu?”

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