7 Things Parents Should Know About the Flu in Children
Anyone who has endured the flu knows it isn’t fun—and that’s especially true of the flu in children. It’s also particularly dangerous for children under five and babies—sadly, there are an average of 100 deaths from flu in this age group each year. Here’s how to read the flu symptoms in children, treat it, and other info doctors want you to know.
The best flu treatment is prevention
While it’s true that the effectiveness of the flu vaccine varies from year to year, the experts agree it is well worth it to get vaccinated. “For kids, the flu is the most common vaccine-preventable illness to result in hospitalization,” says Mary Anne Jackson, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Children’s Mercy Kansas City in Kansas City, Missouri. She adds that 50 percent of flu-related pediatric deaths happen in children who were otherwise healthy, but didn’t get a vaccination. She says all people six months of age and older should get the flu vaccine, which not only helps immunize them but also protects those who are too young—meaning under the age of six months—to be vaccinated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends children who receive a flu vaccine for the first time get a booster approximately one month later. Every parent should know these cold and flu remedies for infants and kids.
Is it a cold or the flu?
It’s easy to confuse flu symptoms in children with symptoms of the common cold. “Many parents will say that they knew their child wasn’t feeling well because he or she was fussier or sleepier than usual, or weren’t as hungry as usual,” says Annapolis, Maryland-based pediatrician Christina Johns, MD, senior medical advisor at PM Pediatrics. She adds that although these symptoms are fairly non-specific, they are sure flu giveaways when accompanied by a very high fever. (If your child’s fever tops 103 degrees, call your doctor immediately. For babies under three months old, that call-the-doctor-ASAP-temperature is 100.4 degrees.) Influenza is a respiratory illness, so it generally starts with a headache and then sore throat and cough—unlike a cold, which starts with a runny nose and congestion, says Dr. Jackson. The tricky part for parents attempting to diagnose flu in children, of course, is that little ones may not be able to articulate which part of their body hurts. Dr. Jackson says to take note if a child refuses to drink or becomes less active, which are more symptomatic of a flu than a cold. This is how you can tell if you have the flu. If you’re achy and feverish you should go see a doctor.
Offer lots to eat and drink
If your child has flu symptoms, the first plan of attack should be to keep him or her hydrated and nourished, no doubt easier said than done. “Having high fever increases the body’s metabolic demand, so this means children need more energy and hydration than usual, which is difficult when kids are sick and don’t want to eat or drink,” says David Mathison, MD, a regional medical director for PM Pediatrics, and an assistant professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, in Washington, DC. To avoid dehydration, which can lead to hospitalization, Dr. Johns suggests enticing babies under the age of 12 months with electrolyte- and glucose-fortified drinks, such as Pedialyte. The same concept of what to eat when you have the flu applies to older children, but Gatorade or another sports drink may be substituted.
Early treatment can lead to faster recovery
How long does the flu in children last? When the flu strikes, that may be one of your first questions. There is no cure for the flu. But antiviral medications may help lessen the effects and shorten the duration of the flu. The key: Get started on treatment as soon as possible. “Tamiflu is an option to expedite recovery of flu in children,” says Dr. Mathison. “This medication is indicated to reduce the symptom duration of the flu if started within the first 24 to 48 hours.” He cautions neither Tamiflu nor the generic version, oseltamivir, will lead to an instant recovery, though they can shorten the length of the sickness. You can start using some types of antiviral drugs in children as young as two weeks old, according to the CDC. There are now four different antiviral drugs that can be used to treat children with the flu, although some are only approved for older children (and keep in mind they can have side effects, so they should be used when the benefits outweigh the risks). Treatment is recommended for children with severe illness or who are at high risk of complications. “Children at high risk of flu-related complications include children younger than 5 years old (especially those younger than 2 years) and children of any age with certain chronic health conditions like asthma, diabetes, or heart or lung disease,” the CDC says. (This is how you can help your kids to avoid getting sick.)
Soothe with a lot of TLC
Because the flu is viral and can’t be cured with medication, Dr. Johns says lots of comfort is important. Use cold compresses to ease fever, lukewarm baths, and massages for the aches. To treat fever, Dr. Jackson encourages parents of babies to check with their doctors for the proper dose of acetaminophen (Tylenol). She also reminds parents never to give decongestants or cough medications to children younger than six. Instead, a humidifier or vaporizer may help ease the discomfort of congestion. These home remedies can help ease a stuffy nose.
Keep your house clean to reduce risk of an outbreak
The flu is highly contagious—even before symptoms appear. It is most often spread when germ-filled droplets from someone who is infected transfer to another person via coughing, sneezing, or even talking, which can happen when the individuals are as far away as six feet. That makes for a very tricky situation when the flu enters a household. “It is nearly impossible not to spread a very contagious virus like the influenza to family members,” says Dr. Johns. Her best suggestion to minimize the risk of flu spreading to siblings or parents is regular hand washing, no sharing of utensils or food, and disinfecting countertops regularly. Check out 10 ways you’re washing your hands wrong.
When in doubt, consult a doctor
For most children with the flu who receive proper care and rest at home, Dr. Jackson says fever should subside in two to four days with a cough lingering for seven to 10 days. However, in 20 to 40 percent of cases, she says a complication such as an ear infection or pneumonia may develop. That’s why Dr. Mathison says “sooner is always better” when it comes to taking a child who seems to be worsening to the doctor. “As a pediatric emergency physician, I worry when children become weak, confused, lethargic or have difficulty breathing,” he says. “These are signs that a patient may have inadequate hydration or the virus is negatively affecting their cardio-respiratory system.” Other major red flags that indicate you need to see a doctor immediately: Your child has rapid breathing or a high fever, becomes listless, develops a blue tinge around his mouth, or experiences a seizure. Here are 10 cold and flu remedies for infants and kids all parents should know.
- Mary Anne Jackson, MD, pediatric infectious disease specialist at Children’s Mercy Kansas City in Kansas City, Missouri
- Christina Johns, MD, senior medical advisor at PM Pediatrics Urgent Care
- David Mathison, MD, regional medical director for PM Pediatrics, and an assistant professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, in Washington, DC
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Children and Flu Antiviral Drugs”
- Mayo Clinic, “Acetaminophen and children: Why dose matters”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “When & How to Wash Your Hands”