How to Prevent the Flu

Cold or Flu and When Your Child Becomes Worse

Characteristics of a COLD ...

  • Can develop year-round; more common in fall and winter
  • Symptoms come on slowly, over the course of several days
  • No fever or low fever (101°F or less)
  • Runny nose, sneezing, congestion, sore throat
  • Small amount of coughing
  • No nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Normal appetite
  • Mild fatigue; child has enough energy to play
  • Typically lasts 5 to 6 days

Characteristics of the FLU ...

  • Strikes during the cold-weather months
  • Symptoms come on suddenly, within 24 hours
  • Higher fever (usually over 101°F)
  • Respiratory symptoms plus chills, headache, and body aches
  • Lots of coughing, often after fever subsides
  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea can occur in children younger than 6
  • Little or no appetite
  • Extreme fatigue; child has no desire to run around and play
  • Typically lasts 10 to 14 days; most severe in first 3 to 4 days

Treating the Flu
Treating the Flu

Feel-Better Tips and Tricks

That pesky flu bug blew past your best defenses? Unfortunately, there's no magic pill that can cure the flu. Ordinary antibiotics don't kill viruses, so all you can do is make your child as comfortable as possible. Here's how.

Ease the aches. As soon as your child exhibits flu symptoms, ask your pediatrician whether he can prescribe an antiviral drug. The sooner you start the medication, the more effective it will be. Alternatively, regular doses of ibuprofen or acetaminophen, under your doctor's supervision, can also help ease symptoms.

Use meds in moderation. Many over-the-counter flu preparations have ingredients that cause side effects in kids, such as irritability and overstimulation. Also, the American Academy of Pediatrics says not to use cold medicines for children under the age of six. Cough medicines that contain dextromethorphan can help your older child sleep by suppressing a cough, but check with your doctor first. Coughing helps clear small airways, so it's not always a good idea to quell it.

Push fluids over food. Don't worry if your child doesn't feel like eating for a couple of days. "He'll catch up once he gets better," Dr. Rubin says. "Getting fluids into him is more important." Have your child's favorite beverage nearby at all times, and encourage him to drink up.

Keep the air moist. Running a vaporizer or a cool-mist humidifier in your child's bedroom can help keep mucous membranes hydrated, ease breathing, and calm a dry cough. (Be sure to clean it daily to prevent mold, which can make respiratory symptoms worse.)

Let her sleep. Your child's body is fighting a serious virus, so she needs as much rest as she can get. Check in on her frequently, but don't disturb her sleep.

Serve chicken soup. Cool liquids feel better than warm ones when a child has a fever, but try offering chicken soup after your child's fever breaks. Besides being the ultimate comfort food, chicken soup contains anti-inflammatory substances that may ease flu symptoms, one study found.

When Symptoms Turn Scary

Most kids recover fully from the flu after a week or two of feeling crummy. But in some cases, the virus can lead to a more serious illness, such as pneumonia, bronchitis, encephalitis (brain swelling), or inflammation of the heart. Babies and toddlers are at highest risk because of their small airways and immature immune systems. Call your doctor immediately if you notice any of the following red flags.

  1. Boomerang fever
    A fever that goes away and then comes back could signal a secondary or bacterial infection. Normally, fever lasts the first three or four days of the illness. "Once the fever breaks for a day, it should be gone," says Ari Brown, M.D., a pediatrician in Austin and author of Baby 411: Clear Answers & Smart Advice for Your Baby's First Year.
  2. Breathing irregularities
    Fast, shallow breathing, sucking in of the rib cage, flaring of the nostrils, or tiny grunts with each breath can be signs of pneumonia. Labored breathing may warrant a trip to the E.R., but call your pediatrician first.
  3. Dehydration
    A high fever tends to increase your child's fluid loss, which will make it harder for his body to fight the infection. Extreme dehydration can even be life-threatening. Signs of it in an infant include no wet diapers for eight hours and a sunken fontanel (soft spot on his head). In an older child, look for crying without tears, sunken eyes, prunelike skin, less-frequent urination, and dark-yellow urine (the color of apple juice).
  4. Increasing sickness
    Dramatic changes in behavior — such as not making eye contact, not crying when expected, acting disoriented, or appearing extremely listless — could mean that your child is getting worse, not better. Trust your instincts. "If your child looks and acts extremely sick, it's best to error on the side of caution and have her examined," Dr. Brown says.

Copyright© 2004. Reprinted with permission from the December 2004 issue of Parents magazine.

Updated November 2009

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