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. Flu symptoms include:
- 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
- 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, achier, 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 2 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 with chronic health conditions
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 flu-like symptoms. Their pediatrician may suggest additional precautions that should be taken. If your child has flu-like 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 may benefit from extra bed rest, and extra fluids.
If your child is uncomfortable because of a fever,
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
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 6 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 5 years
(especially infants younger than 6 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.
Click here for some tips that will help protect your family from getting sick.
There are two types of the vaccine to protect against the flu.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that an influenza vaccination be given annually to
all children starting at six months of age. Children younger than 9 years old may need two doses of the vaccine given at least four weeks 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
All eligible children may receive the inactive vaccine but only those 2 years and older who are healthy should receive the live nasal spray flu vaccine or "mist." All adults should receive the flu vaccine yearly; this is especially important for 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.
The flu vaccine has few side effects, the most common side effects 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
(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 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 1 to 2 days of showing signs of the flu.
Call your pediatrician within 24 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
- Is younger than 2 years, but especially if younger than 6 months as young children are at an increased risk of influenza infection, hospitalization, and serious complications including death.