Flu is the short term for influenza. It is an illness caused by a respiratory virus. The infection can spread rapidly through communities as the virus is passed from person to person. When someone with the flu coughs or sneezes, the influenza virus gets into the air, and people nearby, including children, can inhale it. The virus also can be spread when your child touches a hard surface, such as a door handle, and then places his hand or fingers in his nose/mouth or rubs his eye.
The flu season usually starts in the fall and ends in the spring. When there is an outbreak or epidemic, usually during the winter months, the illness tends to be most pronounced in preschool or school-aged children. Adult caregivers are easily exposed and can contract the disease. The virus usually is transmitted in the first several days of the illness.
All flu viruses cause a respiratory illness that can last a week or more.
- A sudden fever (usually above 101°F or 38.3°C)
- Chills and body shakes
- Headache, body aches, and being a lot more tired than usual
- Sore throat
- Dry, hacking cough
- Stuffy, runny nose
- Some children may throw up (vomit) and have loose stools (diarrhea)
After the first few days of these symptoms, a sore throat, stuffy nose, and continuing cough become most evident. The flu can last a week or even longer. A child with a common cold usually has a lower fever, a runny nose, and only a small amount of coughing. Children with the flu—or adults, for that matter—usually feel much sicker, more achy, and more miserable.
Healthy people, especially children, get over the flu in about a week or two, without any lingering problems. However, you might suspect a complication if your child says that his ear hurts or that he feels pressure in his face and head or if his cough and fever persist beyond two weeks. Talk with your child's doctor if your child has ear pain, a cough that won't go away, or a fever that won't go away.
Children who appear to have the greatest risk of complications from the flu are those with an underlying chronic medical condition, such as heart, lung, or kidney disease, an immune system problem, diabetes mellitus, some blood diseases, or malignancy. As these children may have more severe disease or complications, they should, when possible, be kept away from children with the flu or flulike symptoms. Their pediatrician may suggest additional precautions that should be taken. If your child has flulike symptoms along with any difficulty breathing, seek medical attention right away. There can be serious complications, even death, from the flu, but thanks to the flu vaccine these are uncommon.
For all children with the flu who don't feel well, lots of tender loving care is in order. Children can benefit from extra bed rest, extra fluids, and light, easy-to-digest meals. A cool mist humidifier or vaporizer in the room may add additional moisture to the air and make breathing through inflamed mucous membranes of the nose a little easier.
If your child is uncomfortable because of a fever, acetaminophen or ibuprofen in doses recommended by your pediatrician for his age and weight will help him feel better.
Ibuprofen is approved for use in children six months of age and older; however, it should never be given to children who are dehydrated or who are vomiting continuously.
It is extremely important never to give aspirin to a child who has the flu or is suspected of having the flu. Aspirin during bouts of influenza is associated with an increased risk of developing Reye syndrome.
Everyone should get the flu vaccine each year to update their protection. It is the best way to prevent getting the flu. Safe vaccines are made each year and the best time to get the flu vaccine is the late summer/early fall or as soon as it is available in your community.
Vaccination is especially important for:
- All children, including infants born preterm, who are six months of age and older, especially those with conditions that increase the risk of complications from the flu
- Children of American Indian/Alaskan Native heritage
- All contacts and care providers of children with high-risk conditions and children younger than five years (especially infants younger than six months)
- All health care personnel
- All women who are pregnant, are considering pregnancy, have recently delivered, or are breastfeeding during the flu season
The flu virus spreads easily through the air with coughing and sneezing, and through touching things like doorknobs or toys and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.
Tips to Help Protect Your Family from Getting Sick:
- Everyone should wash their hands often. You can use soap and warm water for at least twenty seconds. That is about as long as singing the "Happy Birthday" song two times. And an alcohol-based hand cleanser or sanitizer works well, too. Put enough on your hands to make them all wet, and then rub them together until dry.
- Teach your child to cover his mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing. Show your child how to cough into the elbow or upper sleeve (not a hand) or use a tissue.
- Throw all tissues used for runny noses and sneezes in the trash right away.
- Wash dishes and utensils in hot, soapy water or the dishwasher.
- Don't let children share pacifiers, cups, spoons, forks, washcloths, or towels without washing. Never share toothbrushes.
- Teach your child to try not to touch her eyes, nose, or mouth.
- Wash doorknobs, toilet handles, countertops, and even toys. Use a disinfectant wipe or a cloth with soap and hot water. (A disinfectant is a cleaner that kills germs.)
The Flu Vaccine:
There are two types of the vaccine to protect against the flu:
- Inactivated (killed) vaccine, also called the "flu shot", is given by injection.
- Live, attenuated (weakened) influenza vaccine is sprayed into the nostrils (often called "flu mist.")
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that an influenza vaccination be given annually to all healthy children starting at six months of age. If your child is receiving the flu vaccine for the first time, he will need two doses given at least one month apart.
Flu vaccines are especially important for children at high risk for complications from the flu such as those with a chronic disease such as asthma, decreased immune system, renal disease, diabetes mellitus, or heart disease. All eligible children may receive the inactive vaccine but only those two years and older who are healthy should receive the live nasal spray flu vaccine or "mist." Adults who live in the same household as someone who has a high risk for flu complications or who care for children under the age of five years should receive the flu vaccine yearly. The flu vaccine has few side effects, the most common being redness, soreness or swelling at the injection site, and fever. Although flu vaccines are produced using eggs, as of 2012, influenza vaccines have been shown to have minimal egg protein so that virtually all children with presumed egg allergy may still safely receive the flu vaccine. For those having a history of severe egg allergy (anaphylaxis or respiratory and/or cardiovascular symptoms after egg ingestion), speak with your child's allergist about receiving the flu vaccine in their office.
Antiviral medications to treat an influenza infection are now available by prescription. Your pediatrician may be able to treat the flu with an antiviral medicine. Antiviral medications work best if started within the first one to two days of showing signs of the flu.
Call your pediatrician within twenty-four hours to ask about antiviral medications if your child is at high risk of influenza complications or if your child:
- Has any serious health problem like asthma, diabetes, sickle cell disease, or cerebral palsy
- Is younger than two years, but especially if younger than six months, as young children are at an increased risk of influenza infection, hospitalization, and serious complications including death.