Children and the Flu

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on April 19, 2022
4 min read

It’s not always easy to tell if 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:

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.

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.

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.

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

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

Yes. Those can include a sinus infection, ear infection, an asthma flare-up, or pneumonia. Call the doctor if your child's fever lasts more than 3 to 4 days. Also call if they complain of trouble breathing, ear pain, a stuffy nose or head, a cough that won’t go away, or they seem 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.

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

These medicines can only be prescribed within the first 48 hours of getting sick. They may 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.

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. Nasal saline is available in a gel form that can be used to minimize congestion once the nostrils are cleared of mucus

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 they're younger than 5 or has an ongoing (chronic) health condition like asthma or other lung disease, heart condition, or diabetes.

Go to the emergency room or call 911 if they have one of the following symptoms:

  • They have trouble breathing that doesn’t get better after you suction and clean their nose.
  • Their skin turns bluish or gray skin.
  • They seem sicker than in any previous episode of illness or doesn’t respond like normal -- for example, if they don’t cry when expected or make good eye contact with you, or if they're listless or lethargic.
  • They aren’t drinking fluids well, continues to vomit frequently, shows signs of dehydration such as absence of tears, crying less or peeing less (dry diapers), is cranky, or has low energy.
  • They have a seizure.