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The flu is nasty — but most children will recover just fine within a week or so. When do you need to be worried, and should you call your doctor?

Millions of children catch the flu — a very contagious virus that will generally make them feel really terrible for a while but from which they’ll usually recover after a week or so — every year. The virus spreads through contact with infected people who cough and sneeze around you, but because the flu can also survive on commonly-touched surfaces like desks or doorknobs for a while.

Children are often in close proximity, and the fact that many of them also forget to wash their hands after coughing or sneezing makes it very easy for the flu to spread through daycare centers and schools. A flu shot goes a long way towards protecting children over six months against the flu, but some vaccinated people do still catch the flu.

Most children who catch the flu will be just fine even if they don’t see a doctor, but complications are possible:

  • Pneumonia
  • Dehydration
  • Complications as a result of the combination of influenza and a pre-existing medical condition like diabetes, asthma, or nervous system disorders
Thousands of children need to be hospitalized because of a flu in the US every flu season. Those under five years old and children with chronic medical conditions are at the highest risk.

When should you call a doctor if you think your child has a flu?

What are the symptoms of the flu?

While the flu is considered a respiratory virus, it actually makes you feel bad all over. Warning signs that indicate your child could have caught the flu include:

  • A (sometimes pretty high) fever — it is not uncommon for your child’s temperature to reach 105°F (40.5°C)
  • Nasal congestion, a runny nose, a sore throat, coughing and sneezing
  • Muscle aches and pains all over the body, and a headache
  • Severe fatigue — it’s common for children with a flu to sleep much of the day
  • Compared to adults, children with a flu are also more likely to experience nausea, to throw up, and to suffer from diarrhea.

You may not have been aware that some flu strains tend to cause worse symptoms than others. Influenza type C, for instance, typically leads to very minor symptoms, whereas types A and B are more serious. Because flu strains often mutate, the flu shot will only protect you for one season.

Some people confuse the flu and common cold, which is much less serious. They share some common symptoms — like a runny or congested nose, sneezing, cough, sore throat, and headache. Occasionally, children with colds will run a fever, too. Children with colds may feel under the weather but can usually engage in daily activities, while a flu puts them right out of action, confining them to bed while they are sleepy, feverish, and achy.

How is the flu treated in children?

If you child catches the flu, they shouldn't go outside unless it's to visit the doctor, and they should avoid other people — for their benefit, but also to prevent them from infecting others. Your child can go out again a day after the fever stays away even though you're no longer giving them fever-reducing painkillers.

Your child should stay in bed if they catch the flu, so that they can rest and stay warm. You should make sure your child is drinking enough water so they don’t get dehydrated. If they aren’t dehydrated, their pee color should be either clear or a light yellow, while very dark-colored urine is a sign of dehydration. 

To reduce a fever and help your child feel a little better, you can offer:

  • Ibprofen
  • Acetaminophen (paracetamol, Tylenol)

Check the dosage, which depends on their age and weight, with your pharmacist, family doctor, or pediatrician, and make sure not to exceed the recommendations. 

Children who are younger than 16 can’t take Aspirin, as it comes with a small risk of Reye’s Syndrome, a rare but serious condition that damages the brain and the liver. Ibuprofen can’t be given to children that are younger than 6 months old, dehydrated children, or who are children throwing up.

Flu in children: When do you need a doctor?

  • It's always a good idea to consult your child's primary care provider before giving children under two any medications — a phone call may do the rick, though. 
  • Get to your doctor right away if your child is younger than three months old and gets a fever.
  • Children under two are at a higher risk of developing complications from the flu, including febrile seizures (seizures as the result of a fever), so to be on the safe side, see your doctor.
  • If you're worried at all, always check in with your doctor.
  • If your child is not drinking or drinking hardly anything, they are vomiting a lot, or have diarrhea, see a doctor. 
  • If your child has trouble breathing, blue lips, can't move, or you can't wake them up — don't wait to see your family doctor, and instead head to the emergency room or call an ambulance. 
It is also important to keep in mind that antiviral medications like oseltamivir and Tamiflu are available, both to reduce the duration of the flu and to offer some symptom relief. These medications reduce the risk of complications like pneumonia, as well. They work best when they're administered within the first 48 hours after your child started having symptoms, and your doctor can prescribe them to you — access to antiviral drugs is an excellent reason to see your doctor about the flu. 

Should my child get a flu shot?

A flu vaccine is your child's first line of defense against the flu, and the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control strongly suggest that children older than 6 months should get a flu shot every year. There are two influenza vaccine options for your child — the inactivated Influenza vaccine and the nasal spray vaccine, which is suitable for children older than two. 

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