One morning, your child wakes up with the classic signs of sickness: Runny nose. Sore throat. Body aches. You check their temperature: It’s high. So is it a cold or the flu? And if it’s the flu, what should you do?
Up to 11% of kids get the flu at some point. Usually they recover just fine. But in some cases, the flu can lead to more serious illnesses.
How to Tell if It’s the Flu
The flu and the common cold are both caused by viruses, and the symptoms can be similar -- a stuffy or runny nose, achy muscles, fatigue, a sore throat, fever, or a headache. The biggest difference is how fast your child feels those symptoms -- and how bad they are.
A cold will seem to creep up on them in a few days, but the flu is more like a surprise attack: they’ll feel very sick, very quickly. And while they might run a fever with a cold, the flu almost always causes one, which can make them feel tired, achy, and weak. Kids are more prone to have vomiting and diarrhea with the flu, too. In general, flu symptoms happen throughout the entire body, instead of just in the head.
The Next Steps
- Call the doctor. The flu often goes away on its own after a week or so, but in some cases, it can cause serious complications. Kids under 5 -- especially those younger than 2 -- are more likely to have those problems, as are kids who have other health conditions like asthma. It’s important to let the pediatrician know if you think your child may have the flu.
- Manage the symptoms. The most important things your little patient needs are plenty of rest and fluids. Give a baby plenty of breast milk or formula. Try to feed more frequently, giving smaller amounts more frequently. Pedialyte may be used if your baby is not taking milk. Serve an older child plenty of fluids such as water and juice, oral electrolyte solution, or ice pops. Don't give any liquids that have caffeine. There aren’t a lot of over-the-counter cold or flu meds that are safe for young children, but you can try giving acetaminophen or, for kids older than 6 months, ibuprofen. (Do NOT give children aspirin because of the danger of Reye's syndrome.) They can help bring down a fever and ease aches and pains. If your child has a bad cough, your doctor may also prescribe cough medicine. Use a humidifier in your child's bedroom to keep it moist to ease a stuffy nose. Remove mucus from their nose with a bulb syringe, or if they’re older, get them to blow it out. You can thin mucus with saline nasal spray and reduce nasal congestion with saline nasal gel. Give them a warm bath. Dress them in light clothing, and keep their room cool.
- Ask about antiviral drugs. They’re prescription medications that can treat the flu by preventing the virus from multiplying inside the body. But to work well, your child has to start taking them ASAP -- within 48 hours of when symptoms first appear. They’ll probably take the medicine -- which comes in pill, liquid, or inhaler form -- for 5 days. Antiviral drugs can make their flu symptoms milder and help them get better faster. Studies also say they make people less likely to get other serious health problems, like pneumonia.
- Know when to get help. It’s important to pay attention to any signs of flu complications. Alert your pediatrician if your child has a high fever for more than 48 hours, is getting sicker, or is not better. (That’s over 101 F in kids who are at least 3 months old -- for younger kids, call the doctor for any fever). Other red flags include signs of dehydration (dry eyes and mouth, peeing very little), unusual breathing (wheezing, panting, or trouble taking a deep breath), or a bluish tint to the lips or face. You should also call the doctor if your child seems “out of it” or won’t eat or drink.
Call 911 if your child:
- Has a seizure
- Isn't alert
- Has trouble breathing
- Has blue lips
- Is under 3 months old
- Has a fever of 104 F or higher
When Can They Go Back to School?
The flu is very contagious, so it’s important to keep your child home if they start feeling sick. Once their fever has been gone for at least 24 hours -- without them taking fever-reducing medication -- it’s safe to send them back to the classroom.
Make sure all children older than 6 months of age -- and all adults they come in contact with -- get a flu vaccine every year.