Everything Kids

Here's How to Tell If Your Child's Flu Has Become Dangerous

It's a scary thought, but this is what you need to know to be prepared.

Sick Boy with Mother Checking Temperature Rido/Shutterstock

There's no question that this year's flu season is serious—and if you're a parent, you're understandably scared for your child. According to the latest report from the CDC, the total number of US pediatric deaths from the flu is now 63. "Every year, about half of pediatric flu deaths are in otherwise healthy children," Wendy Sue Swanson, M.D., of Seattle Children's Hospital and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), tells Parents.com.

The good news is the majority of flu cases in children will resolve themselves, but it's still important to know what to look for to head off potentially life-threatening complications, including:

Dehydration

Flu in children may present a little bit differently than in adults. Along with the usual fever, muscle aches, headache and chills, "children with influenza may also experience vomiting, diarrhea, nausea and stomach pain, unlike most adults," says Dr. Swanson. Infants may also have decreased eating. Because of these symptoms, children and babies are at increased risk for dehydration, which can be serious. "If your child is not staying hydrated or can't keep anything down, it's worth getting seen right away," Dr. Swanson says. According to her, signs of dehydration to look out for are:

  • A dry or sticky mouth
  • Few or no tears when crying
  • Eyes that look sunken in babies
  • The soft spot (fontanelle) on top of the baby's head looks sunken
  • Peeing less or fewer wet diapers than usual
  • Dry, cool skin
  • Irritability, drowsiness, or dizziness

Sepsis

With a bad case of the flu, your body's immune system can go into overdrive and start attacking itself. "Influenza that has spread all over the body can cause a condition called sepsis," Dr. Swanson says. According to the CDC, sepsis happens when an infection already in the body (in this case, the flu) triggers a chain reaction that rapidly causes tissue damage and organ failure. Dr. Swanson says the symptoms to watch for are:

  • Fast heart rate
  • Fast breathing
  • Feeling cold/cold hands and feet
  • Clammy and pale skin
  • Confusion, dizziness or disorientation
  • Shortness of breath
  • Extreme pain or discomfort
  • Nausea and vomiting

Secondary infections

The flu can make your body vulnerable to other infections as well, which can take a dangerous toll. "Children under the age of five—and especially those under two—are considered particularly vulnerable to serious flu-related complications, such as pneumonia [a lung infection] or encephalitis [inflammation of the brain]," Dr. Swanson says.

If your child gets better but then gets worse again, that may be a cause for concern. "Usually after the first few days, we expect to see gradual improvement over a week to 10 days," she says. But, "if a child had flu symptoms, then looked better and then suddenly worsened, I want parents to have their baby or child seen more urgently."

This course of symptoms is suspicious for a secondary infection, she says. "They had a viral infection from flu, their body did a decent job of trying to get rid of the virus, but in that process they got set up for secondary infection, something like a severe ear infection or pneumonia," Dr. Swanson says.

Specifically, watch for:

  • If your child or baby is having trouble breathing or has blue or purple lips
  • If your child seems really out of it, extremely lethargic, confused, or won't wake up
  • Recurring fever after appearing well, or a persistent fever lasting more than several days
  • Febrile seizures (seizure from extremely high fever)

Trust your instincts

It sounds trite, but the best advice may be to listen to your gut when looking for anything unusual. "If something is really different from a regular cold, trust your instinct," Dr. Swanson says. Any severe or sudden changes in symptoms are worth a call to the doctor. But some of these worrying signs can be tricky to distinguish, so when in doubt, don't be afraid to reach out to your child's healthcare provider—that's what they're there for during this bad flu season. And if you haven't already, it's not too late to get your child the flu vaccine, which can help make the illness, if it is contracted, less severe.