Between flu season and the COVID-19 pandemic, there are a lot of reasons to be more mindful of potential illnesses that can affect kids these days. Unfortunately, flu-like symptoms can be mistaken for other conditions, so parents have to be a little more discerning when it comes to trying to figure out what ails their child. As always, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that everyone—including young children six months and older—get a flu shot as a preventative measure. But even a flu vaccine isn’t a 100% guarantee, so it’s helpful to be able to recognize flu symptoms and be able to differentiate them from common cold symptoms and even other medical conditions.
Quick Facts on the Flu
The flu is a respiratory disease caused by the influenza virus. While it’s possible to get the flu any time, every year from October to May is considered flu season, and it is especially active all over the country during this time. The main reason the virus keeps coming back year after year is that it is especially susceptible to mutation; what this means is that new subtypes are created even after our immune system develops antibodies to fight the virus. So even if you or your child already had the flu and successfully fought it off, you can still catch any of the other numerous subtypes.
Perhaps the biggest concern related to the flu in kids is in terms of transmission; whereas adults are typically infectious from about day 1 after infection through days 5-9 after infection, children can still be infectious for up to two full weeks. This infectious phase (also known as viral shedding) can last even longer for children or adults who are immunocompromised. But even if a child isn’t immunocompromised, he or she is still at greater risk of serious complications. In fact, each year thousands of kids are hospitalized because of the flu, and some even die.
In addition to kids being infectious longer than adults, the flu is also a bigger risk because of children being generally less conscientious about hygiene practices that can help prevent transmission. It’s important to remember that a viral infection of influenza is present in the mucus that lines our respiratory system. Essentially any way that mucus can be passed on—usually through direct contact or through aerosolized particles that are ejected during sneezing or coughing—is a chance for the virus to spread. This is naturally a concern for young kids who often have close or direct contact with other kids while at school or while playing.
Symptoms of the Flu
Even though the flu is a respiratory disease, the symptoms can affect the whole body. If your child does get the flu, it’s crucial to keep them home from school and make sure they aren’t interacting closely with anyone else. This is important both because of the chance of infecting someone else and because the symptoms can be very unpleasant for young kids and they need time to rest. Below are some of the most common flu symptoms your child might have:
- Fever: It depends on the individual (and not all kids will get a fever), but a flu fever can rise as high as 103°-105°. A fever is a normal immune system reaction to the flu virus because the body is attempting to make it more difficult for the virus to replicate and cause more problems.
- Aches: Both headaches and body aches are common with the flu; the body’s white blood cells rush all over to fight the virus and can create inflammation in various places.
- Cough: The nature of the flu as a respiratory virus means that the lining of the respiratory system can become inflamed. One of the body’s natural responses to this is to prompt coughing in order to expel virus-infected mucus (which is also, of course, one of the main ways the virus spreads).
- Sore Throat: A sore throat is common with the flu, and it can either be a result of inflammation or a rawness that eventually results from too much dry coughing.
- Runny Nose: Extra mucus lining the nasal passage is another effect of the immune system fighting the virus. So for some people with the flu, that equates to excess mucus leaking out of the nose or even building up and creating a stuffy nose.
- Fatigue: A persistent feeling of tiredness is a classic symptom of the flu, and it generally means that the immune system is working to fight the virus. Fatigue is also normal simply because you are forced to endure aches and pains and all the other symptoms.
Some kids will also get bouts of diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting along with the other flu symptoms, but that is usually rarer. With rest and treatment, most kids will be able to get past the illness within a week or so, though they may experience fatigue for up to a few weeks later. The symptoms above are manageable (if unpleasant), but they usually aren’t dangerous. Here are some additional symptoms to look out for that indicate the child may need more immediate medical attention:
- High fever above 104° (or any fever in a child less than 12 weeks old)
- Rapid breathing
- Difficulty breathing or ribs pulling in with each breath
- Severe pains that make it difficult for the child to walk
- Dehydration (no urine for 8 hours)
- Not very alert or interactive
- Blue lips or face
- Previously present chronic condition that gets worse
If your child has any of the more severe symptoms mentioned above, you should take him or her to a doctor or emergency room right away. In such cases, treatment involves rapidly reducing the severity of the symptoms. As there is no cure for the flu, even in mild cases the treatment essentially follows the same path. The vast majority of kids who contract the flu will have very manageable symptoms that can be treated with a variety of over-the-counter medicines and home remedies:
- Acetaminophen: Tylenol; reduces body aches, muscle aches, and fever
- Ibuprofen: Advil, Motrin, etc.
- Cough Medicine: Robitussin, Mucinex, etc.
- Antiviral Medications: Tamiflu (requires a prescription)
- Bed rest
- Plenty of fluids
- Humidifier: can help ease coughing and sinus issues
Visit a Healthcare Provider
As noted, most kids will be able to overcome the flu virus in about a week. Over-the-counter medications are usually sufficient to help them feel better and be on their way to recovery. If the symptoms are severe, however, the virus can turn from a temporary annoyance to a serious illness very quickly. TrustCare has a number of urgent care locations that are available to provide excellent care to kids and peace of mind to parents as well as a dedicated TrustCare Kids location. TrustCare also offers walk-in flu shots for adults or children that can give an extra level of protection during this time of COVID-19 and flu season.