The Flu: What Parents Should Know
Millions of children get sick with seasonal influenza, thousands are hospitalized and some even die from flu each year. Know the symptoms of flu, its complications, how to care for kids with flu, and when to seek medical attention.
Children who have flu often feel some or all of these symptoms:
fever* or feeling feverish/chills
runny or stuffy nose
muscle or body aches
vomiting and diarrhea,
*It’s important to note that not everyone with flu will have a fever.
How is flu different from a cold?
It can be difficult to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone. In general, flu is worse than the common cold, and symptoms are more intense.
Most people who get flu will recover in a few days to less than two weeks, but some people will develop complications as a result of flu, some of which can be life-threatening.
Children under 5 are at high risk for developing flu related complications and children under 2 are at especially high risk. Any child with chronic health conditions are also at high risk.
These complications include:
Inflammation of the heart, brain, or muscle tissues
An extreme life-threatening inflammatory response in the body called sepsis
Or worsening of chronic illness such as asthma or heart disease.
Emergency warning signs of flu in children include:
Fast breathing or trouble breathing
Bluish lips or face
Ribs pulling in with each breath
Severe muscle pain (child refuses to walk)
Dehydration (no urine for 8 hours, dry mouth, no tears when crying)
Not alert or interacting when awake
Fever above 104°F
Any fever in babies less than 12 weeks of age
Fever or cough that improve but then return or worsen
Worsening of chronic medical conditions
Should you see these symptoms seek medical attention immediately.
When your child gets flu
If your child is 5 years or older and does not have a long-term health problem and gets flu symptoms, including a fever and/or cough, consult your pediatrician or medical care provider as needed.
Children younger than 5 years of age – especially those younger than 2 years – and children with certain long-term health problems (including asthma, diabetes and disorders of the brain or nervous system), are at high risk of serious flu complications. Call your pediatrician or health care provider, or seek medical attention right away if they develop flu symptoms.
How to care for a child with flu:
Avoid touching face to face.
When holding sick children, place their chin on your shoulder so they will not cough in your face.
Wash your hands often. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
Make sure to wash your hands after touching the sick person.
Wash after handling their tissues or laundry.
Avoid the use of aspirin or aspirin-containing products
Make sure your child gets plenty of rest and drinks enough fluids.
For infants, suction the nose before a feeding, at bedtime, or as needed. Avoid suctioning after a feeding, as this can cause baby to vomit.
Breastfeeding is encouraged even if mother has influenza.
Antiviral medications are available and best if initiated within 48 hours of symptom onset. Ask your doctor if antivirals are right for your child.
The best protection against the flu and it’s potential complications is to get your child and yourself a flu vaccine each year. Children 6 months of age and up can be vaccinated. Some children between 6 months and 8 years require two doses of flu vaccine for optimal protection. For infants under 6 months who are too young to be immunized, having caregivers and other close contacts that are immunized reduces the risk of exposure to influenza. Immunized mothers who breastfeed also provide additional protection to their infants. Talk to your pediatrician or medical provider about seasonal influenza immunization.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Children and Influenza. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/flu/highrisk/children.htm