What is the flu?
Flu is short for influenza. It’s a respiratory illness, meaning it affects the parts of the body involved in breathing: the nose, throat, lungs, and so on. Children who get the flu often have a sore throat, cough, and fever.
How long does the flu last in kids? Most children recover within a week, but mild symptoms may last up to a month. Each child will respond a little differently, but here’s what to expect in general:
- High fever for two to three days
- Congestion (runny or stuffy nose) lasting one to two weeks
- Coughing for two to three weeks
- Feeling very tired for up to four weeks
The flu is most contagious in the 24 hours before symptoms start and during the first three to four days of illness. Children may be able to spread the flu to others for more than a week after they first have symptoms. Keep your child at home until they have been fever-free for at least 24 hours without taking fever-reducing medicine.
Signs of the flu
Unlike a cold, the flu comes on suddenly. It is not uncommon for a child who seemed perfectly well the day before to spike a fever of 103°F. Symptoms vary, but can include:
The flu usually, but not always, causes a fever of at least 101°F. Your child’s temperature may go up as high as 103° or 104°F in the first few days of illness.
A child with the flu may feel very cold, even if they are in a warm room. They may shiver and shake.
Headache and body aches
The headaches caused by the flu are much more painful than the mild headache you get with a cold. And if your child tells you they “hurt all over,” they probably aren’t exaggerating. The flu can cause severe muscle and joint aches.
Your child will probably feel exhausted, weak, and uninterested in active play. They will need plenty of extra rest.
Sore throat and cough
Flu can cause a sore throat and fever, but so can an infection of strep throat. You can tell the difference by the cough: strep does not cause a cough, which the flu nearly always does. The coughing caused by the flu is dry and often severe.
Loss of appetite
If your child is sick with the flu, they may not feel like eating in the first day or two. Offer simple foods like toast or applesauce. It’s okay if they don’t eat much, but it’s very important that they drink enough fluids. Juice or broth can help soothe their throat, ease their cough, and keep them hydrated.
Vomiting and diarrhea
Cause of the flu
The flu is caused by a very contagious virus. One child often passes it to another by sneezing, coughing, or sharing items like forks, spoons, or cups.
The virus can live on surfaces like doorknobs and toys. Your child can get the flu by touching something a sick person touched, then touching their eyes, nose, or mouth. Toddlers get the flu easily, because they like to explore by touching things, they put their hands in their mouths a lot, and they tend to rub their eyes and noses often.
Diagnosis for the flu
To test for flu, a doctor or nurse will swipe the inside of your child’s nose or the back of their throat with a swab. You can usually get results later that day.
Treatments for the flu
Antibiotics only work on bacteria, so they won’t help with the flu virus. There is no cure for the flu, but there are medicines that can help ease your child’s symptoms:
Antivirals like Tamiflu can reduce the severity of symptoms but cannot make them go away. They may help your child get better about a day sooner than they might have otherwise. They work better if started within 48 hours of the first flu symptoms, but they can still be given after 48 hours in some cases. Antivirals do have side effects. Tamiflu, for instance, causes vomiting in 10% of children who take it.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that antivirals be used only for children with especially severe symptoms and children at high risk of complications from the flu. This includes healthy children who are under 2 years of age and children of any age who have health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, or cancer.
Cold and cough medicines found in drug stores and grocery stores are not safe for children under age six. They can cause serious side effects. Your doctor may prescribe a safe cough medicine if your child needs one. Allergy medicine will not help with flu symptoms.
Acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) can help reduce fever and ease pain. It is extremely important not to give aspirin to a child with a viral illness, as this can lead to a rare but dangerous condition called Reye syndrome.
Health Solutions From Our Sponsors
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Influenza (Flu)."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Strep Throat: All You Need to Know."
Harvard: "Influenza: How to prevent and treat a serious infection."
Johns Hopkins: "Influenza (flu) in Children."
Seattle Children’s Hospital: "Flu."
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