Flu season is a miserable time for all. This illness comes on fast and is more intense than a cold. It can also be more severe when it affects young children. With changing weather and holidays ahead of us, it’s important for families to know how to recognize the flu as well as be aware of the impact the flu can have on children.
Influenza in Children: The Cause
The flu is caused by a family of influenza viruses. Influenza viruses are extremely contagious and are primarily spread by air when infected individuals cough, sneeze or talk. Influenza can also be spread by touch if someone comes into contact with a surface, toy, or another object that has flu virus on it. No matter how the virus is transmitted, it ultimately enters the mouth, eyes, or nose of a newly infected patient.
Understanding the Different Types of Flu Virus
There are four different types of influenza viruses: influenza A, B, C, and D. However, influenza A and B are the types of influenza that cause epidemic seasonal infections nearly every year. Experts estimate that influenza A accounts for 75% of confirmed seasonal influenza infections; while influenza B infections account for the remaining 25%.
The primary differences between these types of flu virus is in their presentation and lineage. Influenza A viruses are very diverse and can be found in multiple animal species. When you hear experts talking about H1N1, that is an influenza A virus. Influenza B, on the other hand, is typically only found in humans.
Understanding the Flu vs. The Common Cold
It’s also important for families to remember that the flu and the cold are not the same illness. While both are respiratory illnesses, the common cold is caused by different viruses than the flu. Colds typically have milder symptoms than the flu - especially lower fever, fewer chills and bodyaches, and less fatigue.
Perhaps the most distinguishing trait of the flu is that it comes on quickly, making children suddenly fall ill. A cold often presents more gradually, with signs and symptoms increasing in intensity over a period of days.
Influenza Symptoms: What to Watch For
Flu symptoms last about 1 to 2 weeks, although kids may still have a cough or feel weak for a period of time after recovering. Recent research has also confirmed that both types of flu virus resulted in similar rates of illness. Because of this, it’s more practical to monitor for flu symptoms in general, rather than to worry about the type of flu virus a child may have.
The following are all possible symptoms of influenza:
- fever, which may be as high as 103°F to 105°F
- muscle aches
- loss of appetite
- tiredness and weakness
- sore throat
- runny nose
- nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
Treating the Flu in Children
Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe their condition is. The goal of treatment is to help prevent or ease symptoms. Treatment can include:
- Fever reducer (acetaminophen or ibuprofen). This is to help lessen body aches and fever. Don't give aspirin to a child with a fever; and don’t give ibuprofen to children < 6 months of age.
- Plenty of rest and fluids. Avoiding dehydration is a key factor to helping your child get better. Let your child rest until they are fever-free without fever reducer for at least 24 hours.
- Antiviral medicine. This may help to ease symptoms, and shorten the length of illness; but this medicine does not cure the flu. It must be started within 48 hours after symptoms begin. In children, antiviral medications are indicated for those under 2 years of age or those with chronic medical conditions that put them at risk for complications from influenza (i.e. asthma, cancer, cystic fibrosis).
Preventing the Flu in Children
Unfortunately, there is no guaranteed way to avoid the flu. But there are things families can do to minimize their child’s risk of getting sick during cold and flu season. These include:
- Ensure anyone in your family over the age of 6 months receives a flu shot
- Teach children how to properly wash their hands and cover their mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing
- Encourage children to wash their hands when appropriate (i.e. after using the bathroom, after coughing or sneezing, and before and after handling food)
- Dispose of tissues and tell children not to throw away a classmate’s used tissues for them
- Avoid sharing cups and utensils and snacks from a shared bowl
- Keep your distance when you are sick or you are around someone sick
Contact Us As Needed
If you think your child has the flu, please call us in the first 24 hours so we can give you advice to ensure your child returns to full health as soon as possible. For children under age 2 years and those with chronic medical conditions, we recommend a visit in the office within the first 48 hours of suspected symptoms.
While the flu often goes away on its own after a week or so, it can also cause serious complications. Please contact us if your child has signs of dehydration, difficulty breathing, chest pain, cough more than 2 weeks or other new symptoms.
If you have concerns about this year’s flu season, please contact us. Capital Area Pediatrics can assist your family with information, last-minute flu shots, and care as needed. If at any point you suspect your child has the flu, find the nearest location or request an appointment so your child can be evaluated by a member of our care team.