Influenza is caused by a variety of different viruses. Flu season is at its peak between January and April, so parents should be on the lookout for signs and symptoms and keep a child at home if they think he or she is infected. Children who are young, severely ill, or have worsening symptoms should be treated with an antiviral agent (e.g. Tamiflu) as soon as possible. Ideally, treatment should begin within two days of symptom onset, though treatment benefits will occur for up to five days after onset.
How is the flu virus spread?
One can catch the Influenza viruses by breathing in droplets expressed when an infected person coughs or sneezes nearby (within a meter) or by touching surfaces contaminated by the virus. Once exposed it can take several days before flu symptoms appear. This period is known as the incubation period. Infected adults can spread viruses one day before symptoms appear to about three to five days after showing symptoms. Children may infect other children several days before they have symptoms to more than 10 days after symptoms appear. It's important to remember that infants (less than 6 months of age) may not show fever or cough with a flu infection.
Flu prevention and vaccines
, which are readily available and given yearly, remain the best way to prevent disease, however, some vaccinated children may still contract the flu. Check with your physician to know which vaccine is the best for your child. Usually, a flu vaccine is not given if your child has a fever or is otherwise ill.
Other ways to prevent infection include:
- Hand Hygiene: Wash hands or use alcohol hand solutions after being in public or after contact with anyone with a cold or flu. Make it a habit to frequently wash hands with soap and water
- Cough Etiquette: Turn head and cough or sneeze into a disposable tissue and promptly dispose of the used tissue; or cough into the inside of the elbow if a tissue is not available
- Don't expose young children or immunosuppressed children unnecessarily to large crowds when influenza is in your community
- Avoid close contact (holding, kissing) between infants and anyone who has a cold or flu
- Stay home from work or school if you have influenza (fever, muscle aches, cough)
- Do not share anything that goes into the mouth such as drinking cups and straws
- Frequently clean commonly touched surfaces (door knob, refrigerator handle, phone, water faucets) if someone in the house has a cold or flu
- It is best to avoid smoking around children.
It is a cold or the flu?
Sometimes parents confuse a common cold with the flu. The following guidelines may help you distinguish between these common seasonal maladies.
||None or low grade
May last two to six days
|Common and high
(102 to 105 degrees)
||None or mild
||Almost always present
|Mild if at all
||Mild if at all
||Extreme exhaustion that can
last two to three weeks
|Mild to moderate
||Common, can be severe
|Source: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease
Preventing the flu in children and infants
The best way to prevent your child or baby 6 months or older from getting the flu is to ask his or her doctor about obtaining a vaccine. Advise your child of prevention strategies. Remind children of the importance of not sharing cups and eating utensils with friends, and provide them with portable hand sanitizers. Remind them that one of the most important strategies is washing their hands with soap and water.
What if your child begins showing symptoms?
Contain the illness: If your child has a fever or other symptoms, be sure to keep him or her at home. Take his or her temperature, and keep siblings and other family members separated from the child as much as possible. Be sure to wash your hands after every visit to the child’s room, and wash all items the child touches. Keep your child home until he or she has been symptomfree for 24 hours.
Managing flu symptoms in children
If your child’s fever is high, work to control it through use of medications such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naprosyn (ask your physician to choose which is best). After administering the proper dose for age and weight, you may provide baths at room temperature and cool compresses. Offer oral hydrating solutions such as Pedialyte if the child is vomiting. It is important to offer frequent small meals and avoid over bundling a feverish child.
When to see a doctor
Be sure to see your doctor right away if the fever persists for more than three days or in the event of frequent night awakenings due to headaches or vomiting. Remember, you know your child better than anyone, so if you are worried, visit your doctor immediately.
Did you know?
Half of the conditions for which children are brought to an Emergency Room can be treated at an Urgent Care Center. Our urgent care centers can help diagnose common viruses, including testing for flu, RSV and more.
Click here to find an urgent care center near you.
About the Author: Dr. Gloria Riefkohl is a pediatrician with Nicklaus Children's Hospital, Pediatric Care Center and the Division of Preventive Medicine.
References: The American Academy of Pediatrics: aap.org, The Center for Disease Control and Prevention: cdc.gov