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Influenza, commonly known as the flu, is a highly contagious and serious viral infection of the respiratory tract. It affects all age groups, though kids tend to get it more often than adults. Symptoms can include fever, cough, sore throat, muscle aches, fatigue, congestion, a runny nose, and, in some cases, extreme illness or death. The best way to protect yourself and your kids against the flu is to receive an annual influenza vaccination.

Children's Pedcast

Joe Kurland discusses the severity of influenza; how to prevent it; the differences between the flu and illnesses mistaken for flu; and the importance of getting the flu vaccine.

Your Flu Questions Answered

What’s the difference between the cold and the flu and how can I tell?

Sometimes it’s hard to know whether a child has a cold or the flu because they may cough, have a runny nose, sore throat and fatigue with both. However with the flu, a child tends to have a high fever which comes on more suddenly and may include severe fatigue and body aches. Colds tend to come on more gradually, and many kids may feel well enough to keep playing and going to school with a cold. Clinics may use a rapid nose swab test to determine if someone has influenza.

What should I do if I suspect influenza?

Most cases of influenza are mild and can be managed at home with rest, plenty of fluids and fever-reducing medicines. Tender-loving care is good medicine, too. Most over-the-counter “cough and cold” medicines do not help a sick child get better faster and won’t have much effect on influenza. Sometimes, the flu can make a child very ill and a visit to the clinic or emergency room is necessary.

When should I take my child to the emergency department?

Take your child to be checked if they have difficulty breathing (fast, grunt-sounding, noisy breathing or small breaths), if their color looks bad (pale or bluish), if they aren’t drinking fluids often or urinating at least once every eight hours, or if they just aren’t themselves and you’re worried. Signs of dehydration are dry lips, sunken eyes, sleepiness or crankiness. Children who seem like they’re getting better and then suddenly get worse should be taken to the Emergency Department immediately. This could mean they have another infection such as pneumonia in addition to the flu.

What are the best ways to get my child’s fever down when they have the flu?

Fever is one of the tools our immune system uses to kill germs. However, children with high fever can feel quite miserable, get crabby, have trouble waking up and may drink less fluids causing dehydration. If you can’t keep the fever down with a fever-reducing medicine such as Tylenol or ibuprofen, then the child should be taken to the clinic or emergency department.

Is there anything else I can do to help make my child more comfortable?

You can keep your child home from day care, school, sports or other activities and have them rest early in their illness until they show signs of getting back to “their normal self.” If your child doesn’t want to eat regular meals, don’t insist, but do make sure they drink small amounts of fluids every hour to prevent dehydration.

Is there anything I can do to help my child recover more quickly?

There is an anti-viral medicine called Tamiflu that can be given to children as young as 2 weeks of age. This is used if the child is hospitalized with moderate or severe influenza or if the child is outpatient but at higher risk for complications from influenza. These would be children with immune system problems or neurological, pulmonary, or metabolic underlying conditions. Tamiflu works best if given in the first two days of illness which can cut the severity and number of days of illness in half. Antibiotics are not typically prescribed to children with illnesses caused by a virus (like the cold or influenza). It’s important to only give prescription medications to the child it was written for and for the condition or illness it was prescribed to treat.

How long will my child be contagious?

Influenza is most contagious the day before symptoms present through about day four of illness. Your child should stay home from school during this time. After viral illnesses, kids can have lingering muscle or body aches and really do need time to rest and recover before rushing back to school. They can often pick up other viruses easily and may have a lingering cough as their airway heals. Depending on the severity of the flu, this may be a few days to a few weeks. Most kids recover within a week. Remember that many schools require that your child be fever-free (without the help of medicines) for one to two days before returning to school or day care.

Our Experts

Patsy Stinchfield, MS, RN, CPNP

Patsy Stinchfield, MS, RN, CPNP, is an infectious disease nurse practitioner and Director of Infection Prevention and Control and the Children’s Immunization Project at Children’s Minnesota. She is a widely-recognized infectious diseases specialist and expert on vaccinations and immunizations, and has served as a source for the Associated Press, The New York Times, USA Today and more.

A photo of Joe Kurland, MPH

Joe Kurland, MPH, is a vaccine specialist and infection preventionist for Children’s Minnesota clinics. He is passionate about employing vaccines, education and other tools to prevent disease both in health care settings and the wider community.

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