Influenza, more commonly referred to as the “flu,” is a respiratory infection that is commonly spread during winter months. Most influenza infections happen between December and March, but the “flu season” spans from October through May. While the flu does affect people of all ages, children usually get the flu more frequently than adults.
Here’s what parents need to know about influenza and influenza-like illnesses (ILI), and how Children’s Minnesota, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend they be treated.
When to go to the doctor
To a person without medical experience, flu symptoms can be mistaken for the common cold, and vice versa. However, symptoms of an influenza infection are often more severe than with a cold. Here are some subtle differences between a cold and the flu that parents may notice at home:
- Sudden onset.
- High fever.
- Severe exhaustion.
- Decreased appetite, sometimes with vomiting and diarrhea.
- Achy muscles.
- Slow onset.
- Mild or no fever.
- Slightly more tired than normal.
- Normal appetite.
- Muscles feel normal.
- No chills.
Even if most of your child’s symptoms fall into the “cold” category, if you are concerned about your child, it’s still important to speak with their clinician. Every child experiences the flu differently, and some bacterial illnesses, such as strep throat or pneumonia, can also be occurring simultaneously. Make an appointment with your child’s doctor as soon as possible if your child’s illness is worsening. Influenza can be life-threatening, so if you are worried or noticing more severe or unusual symptoms, please seek care immediately.
What is influenza testing?
Early in the flu season, testing may help determine if a patient has influenza, but after the flu is widespread in the community, we do not typically need this testing, except for children under age 2 years or those with chronic health conditions. Testing is also recommended for children who have siblings at home who are younger than 6 months old or have chronic medical conditions. Instead, we may use a diagnosis of influenza-like illness (ILI). Because the flu is a viral illness, the course of treatment doesn’t change with a test confirming influenza.
How is influenza treated?
Tamiflu (oseltamivir) is a medication that may partially reduce some influenza symptoms and shorten the illness by about a day if it is started within the first 48 hours. This medication is occasionally challenging for some children to tolerate given side effects of vomiting or sometimes neurological symptoms.
Generally, Tamiflu is offered to patients with ILI or influenza who are under 2 years of age or who have a chronic condition, such as asthma or a suppressed immune system. Tamiflu may also be offered to patients with ILI or influenza who don’t have chronic conditions if they are moderately or severely ill, or have a worsening illness. Otherwise healthy kids with ILI or influenza may also be offered Tamiflu if they are often around children younger than six months old or kids who have high risk conditions. This helps protect children who may not be able to be vaccinated against the flu because of age or medical history.
Preventing the flu
While there is no guaranteed way to be 100 percent protected from the flu, there are many easy things you can do to slow the spread of the flu.
The influenza virus can potentially live on a surface that has been sneezed upon by an ill person for about a day. Kids often touch their nose, mouth or eyes and may potentially be directly introducing the influenza virus into their bodies. Therefore, it is important to ensure that the surfaces they are in contact with are regularly cleaned and that kids frequently wash their hands with soap and water. Hand-washing is especially important after using the bathroom, after coughing or sneezing, and before eating or preparing food.
As children, we all learn how important it is to share, but it’s important to know what is and is not appropriate to share. You should avoid sharing cups or eating utensils, even with family members, to reduce the spread of illnesses.
Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue whenever you cough or sneeze, then put it in the trash. If a tissue isn’t available, sneeze into your upper arm and not your hands. And always be sure to wash your hands afterwards! This reduces spreading the virus to hard surfaces where others may be exposed.
If you or your child are sick with the flu, stay home from work or school. It may take a week to improve, so keep in contact with your child’s clinician to ensure your child is following the typical course of recovery.