Cold & Flu Symptoms in Children
Caring for a sick child brings extra stress and worry for everyone in the family—especially parents. Unfortunately, colds and the flu are very common in children. On average, kids can expect five or six colds a year before they start school. Some kids get as many as eight to 10 colds a year. It isn’t until they become teenagers that kids settle down to adult levels of cold infections, getting infected about four times a year on average.
Kids get sick a lot because they’ve never been exposed to the many common cold and flu viruses that most adults have already built immunities to. Building immunities takes time: many years, in fact. Plus there are more than 200 different cold viruses, making the situation worse.
Unfortunately colds cannot be cured. That’s why treatment is your first line of defense when it comes to fighting sickness in children. In this article, we will use the advice of medical experts to give you the best chances of easing your child’s cold and flu symptoms.
Fighting Cold Symptoms: Why Rest Is Best
Sleep is restorative, and it helps us recover from illness. This is why it's important for your children to rest when they are under the weather. Keep them home from school or daycare if they are sick, especially if they have a fever. This will also help keep the germs from spreading to classmates.
- Try to give them at least 8-10 hours of sleep.
- Let them rest until they feel better.
- One study indicated that the less sleep we get, the more likely we are to become infected after being exposed to a cold virus.
Even if your children do not sleep, it's a good idea to limit their activity and keep them resting. Let them stay in bed and read them their favorite book or watch a movie.
Fighting Kids’ Cold & Flu Symptoms: Keep Fluids Coming
Drink plenty of fluids – it's important your child stays hydrated. The body needs water to stay healthy, and when you are sick, it's easy to become dehydrated from cold symptoms like
- vomiting, or
Many medications such as decongestants can also have a drying effect.
Any liquid without caffeine is good:
- soup, and even
Popsicles or gelatin can also work.
Cold Vs. Flu
How do you know if your child has a cold or the flu? Both illnesses have similar symptoms so sometimes it's difficult to tell.
How to Tell a Cold From a Flu
- The flu comes on like a ton of bricks – it hits hard and fast and your child will usually feel worse than he or she does with the common cold.
- Symptoms of the flu include fever, body aches, extreme tiredness, and dry cough.
- Colds are usually milder than the flu and have symptoms such as a runny or stuffy nose.
- Colds rarely move into the lungs.
- Flus can cause pneumonia.
If you suspect your child has the flu, take them to the pediatrician. If the flu is diagnosed right away, there is medication that can help reduce the severity of the symptoms and duration of the illness.
Fighting Kids’ Cold & Flu Symptoms: Fever Relief
A fever is a sign the body is fighting off an infection, but it can also make your child feel worse. There are some home remedies to make your child more comfortable.
- As with colds, let your child get plenty of fluids and rest.
- Keep the room temperature cool (between 70° and 74° F).
- Dress your child in lightweight pajamas.
- If your child has the chills, give him or her an extra blanket, which can be removed once the chills stop.
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol) along with a lukewarm bath may also help.
Fever Medicine? Ask a Doctor
Talk to your child's doctor before giving medicine for a fever. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) can usually be given safely to bring down a fever. Here are some medications to avoid for children fighting flu:
- Do not give any medications to infants under 2 months of age • Do not give ibuprofen to babies under 6 months of age without a doctor's recommendation.
- Never give children under 18 aspirin, as it can cause Reye's syndrome, a serious illness.
Fighting Kids’ Cold & Flu Symptoms: Cold Medicine
For most children, home remedies are the best treatment. Since most colds are caused by viruses, all you can do is treat the symptoms and let the body heal on its own.
Tips for Giving Cold Medicine to Children
- If you think your child needs medicine, talk to your child's doctor first.
- Never give children medications meant for adults
- Read labels carefully so you don't give more than one medicine with the same ingredients.
Fighting Kids’ Cold & Flu Symptoms: Stuffy Noses
Whether it’s from a cold, flu, allergies, or another form of infection, keeping stuffy noses in check is important to your children’s health. Not only will they feel better, but stopping a stuffy nose will help stop the spread of infection too.
Tips to Stop Stuffy Noses
- If your child is has a stuffy nose, make sure he or she is well-hydrated—fluids help thin mucus.
- You can also use a humidifier or vaporizer in their room to keep air moist and clear their congestion.
- Nasal washes with saline may be used for older children.
- Raise the head of your child's bed or crib a few inches to help nasal secretions drain more easily.
- If little noses are irritated from blowing them, dab some petroleum jelly on the skin to soothe the outside of the nose.
- Children over 5 years old may benefit from pediatric nasal strips that help open the nostril slightly to give relief from nasal congestion.
- Medicated nose drops should only be given to children over 6 years old and should not be used for more than two or three days. Using them for too long will make congestion worse.
- For babies with congestion, you can use an infant nasal suction bulb to remove the mucus. Put three drops or warm water or saline in each nostril first to soften the mucus. Wait a minute, then suction it out.
Fighting Kids’ Cold & Flu Symptoms: Soothe a Sore Throat
A painful sore throat can make kids miserable in a hurry. Plus, as children, your options for medicating them are limited.
Ways to Relieve a Child’s Sore Throat
- Cold drinks including milkshakes and ice chips will help numb a sore throat.
- Warm items like soup or tea can also soothe a sore throat.
- For children 8 or older, gargling with warm salt water can help loosen phlegm and relieve a dry throat.
- Lozenges can provide some soothing relief. However, they are a choking hazard for young children and should be offered only to older children upon advice of the child's pediatrician.
- Pain medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen may be given to older children for pain relief.
Fighting Kids’ Cold & Flu Symptoms: Calming a Cough
If the cough does not really bother your child, it may not require treatment. Coughing helps clear the chest of mucus. Coughs in children usually only need treatment if the cough causes discomfort or disrupts sleep. If it is necessary to treat your child’s cough, here are a few effective options.
Fighting a Child’s Cough
- A humidifier or vaporizer in your child's room can help ease coughing symptoms.
- Like a humidifier, breathing in steam from a warm shower can ease a cough.
- Children 3 months to 1 year old can have warm, clear fluids such as warm water or juice.
- A spoonful of honey before bed has been shown to reduce coughing in children over 1 year old. It helps thin mucus and loosens the cough.
- As with sore throats, lozenges can help relieve a cough for older children who are not in danger of choking on them. Ask their pediatrician if you are unsure.
- Elevating your child’s head with extra pillows can help relieve a cough that isn’t producing mucus.
- Children under 4 should not be given medications containing dextromethorphan (DXM). Children 4-11 can take DXM, but use caution and follow the directions carefully. Do not use a household spoon to measure the medication—only use the measuring spoon or cup that came with the medication.
- Don’t bother with decongestants or antihistamines. These don’t do any good for relieving coughs when a child is sick with a cold or flu. Oral decongestants can actually increase insomnia and raise the heartbeat, so it is better to avoid them.
Fighting Kids’ Cold & Flu Symptoms: Try Soft Foods
"Feed a cold and starve a fever" is an old myth, so ignore it. If your child is hungry, let him or her eat. Here are some tips to make sure mealtime goes well for your sick child.
Feeding a Sick Kid
- Soft foods are often easier to swallow when a child has a sore throat.
- Bland foods can be easier to eat when a child's stomach is upset. Foods such as oatmeal, soup, mashed potatoes, applesauce, and bananas can be more palatable with an upset stomach.
- Popsicles are usually a good idea as they can help hydrate as well as soothe. Crackers or even mac and cheese are also options.
- High-fat foods should be avoided, as these can be difficult to digest.
- If your child does not want to eat, offer lots of fluids and small, healthy meals.
Fighting Kids’ Cold & Flu Symptoms: Upset Stomach
Children sick with the flu may not feel like eating much as they may also experience
- upset stomach,
- vomiting, or
They can also become dehydrated. It's important to give your child plenty of fluids. Re-hydration solutions for children are often the best option. You can give your child water or ice chips to suck on. Some drinks should be avoided, however, due to their high sugar content, which can make diarrhea worse. Try to avoid
- sports drinks,
- soda, and
- other beverages with high sugar content.
If a child is not vomiting, they can eat small portions, and make sure they drink plenty of fluids.
Fighting Kids’ Cold & Flu Symptoms: Trust Your Instincts
Sometimes you just have a bad feeling something isn’t right when your child is sick at home. Here are some times when it’s best to contact your child's pediatrician.
When to Call a Doctor
- Your child's temperature is higher than 101° F.
- Their symptoms last more than 10 days.
- Symptoms are severe or unusual.
- Your child is younger than 3 months old and has a fever.
In addition, watch out for the following signs, which could spell more trouble than the usual cold or flu:
- breathing problems,
- difficulty swallowing,
- coughing up a lot of mucus,
- extreme fatigue or irritability,
- earache or drainage from the ear,
- your child seems to be getting worse and not better, or
- any other symptoms that concern you.