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When Your Child Has a Cold or Flu

Colds and influenza (flu) infect the upper respiratory tract. This includes the mouth, nose, nasal passages, and throat. Both illnesses are caused by germs called viruses, and both share some of the same symptoms. But colds and flu differ in a few key ways. Knowing more about these infections may make it easier to prevent them. And if your child does get sick, you can help keep symptoms from becoming worse.

Boy and girl washing hands at the bathroom sink.

What Is a Cold?

  • Symptoms include runny nose, cough, sneezing, and sore throat. Cold symptoms tend to be milder than flu symptoms.

  • Cold symptoms come on slowly.

  • Children with a cold can still do most of their usual activities.

What Is the Flu?

  • Influenza is a respiratory infection. (It’s not the same as the “stomach flu.”)

  • Symptoms include fever, headache, tiredness, cough, sore throat, runny nose, and muscle aches. Children may also have an upset stomach and vomiting.

  • Flu symptoms tend to come on quickly.

  • Children with the flu may feel too worn out to engage in normal activities.

How Do Colds and Flu Spread?

The viruses that cause colds and flu spread in droplets when someone who is sick coughs or sneezes. Children can inhale the germs directly. But they can also pick up the virus by touching a surface where droplets have landed. Germs then enter a child’s body when she touches her eyes, nose, or mouth.

Why Do Children Get Colds and Flu?

Children get more colds and flu than adults do. Here are some reasons why:

  • Less resistance: A child’s immune system is not as strong as an adult’s when it comes to fighting cold and flu germs.

  • Winter season: Most respiratory illnesses occur in fall and winter when children are indoors and exposed to more germs.

  • School or daycare: Colds and flu spread easily when children are in close contact.

  • Hand-to-mouth contact: Children are likely to touch their eyes, nose, or mouth without washing their hands. This is the most common way germs spread.

How Are Colds and Flu Diagnosed?

Most often, doctors diagnose a cold or the flu based on the child’s symptoms and a physical exam. Children who are very sick may have throat or nasal swabs to check for bacteria and viruses. Your child’s doctor may perform other tests, depending on your child’s symptoms and overall health.

How Are Colds and Flu Treated?

Most children recover from colds and flu on their own. Antibiotics aren’t effective against viral infections, so they are not prescribed. Instead, treatment is focused on helping ease your child’s symptoms until the illness passes. To help your child feel better:

  • Give your child lots of fluids, such as water, electrolyte solutions, apple juice, and warm soup, to prevent dehydration.

  • Make sure your child gets plenty of rest.

  • Have older children gargle with warm saltwater.

  • To relieve nasal congestion, try saline nasal sprays. You can buy them without a prescription, and they’re safe for children. These are not the same as nasal decongestant sprays, which may make symptoms worse.

  • Use “children’s strength” medication for symptoms. Discuss all over-the-counter (OTC) products with the doctor before using them. Note: Do not give OTC cough and cold medications to a child under 6 years unless the doctor tells you to do so.

  • Never give aspirin to a child under age 18 who has a cold or flu. (It could cause a rare but serious condition called Reye’s syndrome.)

  • Never give ibuprofen to an infant 6 months of age or younger.

    Keep your child home until he or she has been fever-free for 24 hours.

Preventing Colds and Flu

To help children stay healthy:

  • Teach children to wash their hands often—before eating and after using the bathroom, playing with animals, or coughing or sneezing. Carry an alcohol-based hand gel (containing at least 60 percent alcohol) for times when soap and water aren’t available.

  • Remind children not to touch their eyes, nose, and mouth.

  • Ask your child’s doctor about a flu vaccination for your child. Vaccination is recommended for all children 6 months and older. The vaccination is given in the form of a shot or a nasal spray.

Tips for Proper Handwashing

Use warm water and plenty of soap. Work up a good lather.

  • Clean the whole hand, under the nails, between the fingers, and up the wrists.

  • Wash for at least 15-20 seconds (as long as it takes to say the alphabet or sing “Happy Birthday”). Don’t just wipe—scrub well.

  • Rinse well. Let the water run down the fingers, not up the wrists.

  • In a public restroom, use a paper towel to turn off the faucet and open the door.

When to Call the Doctor

Call your child’s doctor if a child doesn’t get better or has:

  • Shortness of breath or fast breathing.

  • Thick yellow or green mucus that comes up with coughing.

  • Worsening symptoms, especially after a period of improvement.

  • Fever:

    • In an infant under 3 months old, a rectal temperature of 100.4°F (38.0°C) or higher

    • In a child 3 to 36 months, a rectal temperature of 102°F (39.0°C) or higher

    • In a child of any age who has a temperature of 103°F (39.4°C) or higher

    • A fever that lasts more than 24-hours in a child under 2 years old, or for 3 days in a child 2 years or older

    • Your child has had a seizure caused by the fever

  • Fever with a rash, or fever that doesn’t go down with medication.

  • Severe or continued vomiting.

  • Signs of dehydration: a dry mouth; dark or strong-smelling urine or no urine output in 6-8 hours; refusal to drink fluids.

  • Trouble waking up.

  • Ear pain (in toddlers or adolescents).

 

 
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