The Flu in Children: What You Need to Know

Published June 30th, 2022 by Chris Riley
Fact Checked by
Jacqueline Hensler
Medically Reviewed:
Dr. Angel Rivera

The flu, also called influenza, is a highly contagious virus that can cause severe illness in children and it is important for parents to be aware of the symptoms of the flu and how to treat it.

In some cases, the influenza virus can lead to more serious complications such as pneumonia or even be fatal.

There are a few different treatment options available that you need to be aware of if your child does contract the flu that you can discuss with their doctor.

In this article, we will provide information on the flu in children, including how it spreads, what are the complications, and when you need to take your child to their doctor. We will also give you tips on ways to prevent the flu.

What is the flu?

The flu is a respiratory illness caused by a group of flu viruses that are highly contagious.

It can spread quickly through person-to-person contact by coughing, talking, or sneezing and sometimes through the contamination of surfaces.

When you cough, sneeze, or talk while infected with the flu, you release droplets of respiratory secretions into the air.

These droplets can contain the flu virus and can land in the mouths, eyes, or noses of people who are nearby, causing them to become infected with the flu.

If someone touches a surface that has the flu virus on it and then touches their mouth, eyes, or nose, they can also become infected with the flu virus.

There are three types of influenza viruses that can infect humans: influenza A, influenza B, and influenza C.

Influenza type A viruses are the most common and can cause pandemics (worldwide epidemics) of respiratory illness.

Type B influenza viruses are also common, but they do not usually cause pandemics although they are prevalent during flu season.

Type C influenza viruses are much less common than types A and B and generally have mild symptoms.

Flu season typically lasts from October through May, with December through February being the peak seasonal flu season.

What are the symptoms of flu in children?

Flu symptoms are similar to the common cold symptoms but they are usually more severe.

The flu generally comes on suddenly with a rapid onset of symptoms within a few hours.

Symptoms of the flu in children are similar to those in adults although certain symptoms are more prevalent among kids. The common symptoms of influenza for children include:

  • Fever (it can be a low-grade fever or anything up to 105°F or 40.5°C)
  • Headache
  • Chills
  • Body aches and muscle pain
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Dry cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Stuffy nose
  • Chest congestion

Vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea are symptoms that are more likely to occur in children than adults which can lead some parents to misdiagnose the condition as the stomach flu or food poisoning.

Children with the flu may also have difficulty breathing or rapid breathing.

child with the flu

Your child is usually infected a day before symptoms start and the symptoms usually last for about a week although he or she can be contagious for longer due to not having as strong of an immune response as a healthy adult.

They are no longer contagious anymore when they do not have a fever for over 24 hours without the aid of medication.

What are the complications of the flu in children?

The flu can sometimes lead to severe complications, particularly in young children and infants.

Complications of the flu in children include:

  • Pneumonia
  • Sinus infections
  • Ear infections
  • Dehydration
  • Brain inflammation (encephalitis) or swelling of the tissue around the brain and spinal cord (meningitis)
  • Heart problems, such as inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis) or rhythm problems (arrhythmias)
  • Kidney failure
  • Multiple organ failure
  • Blood disorders, such as low levels of red blood cells (anemia), abnormal bleeding, or increased clotting

If your child experiences any of these complications please take them to receive medical care.

Children with certain medical conditions are at a higher risk of developing complications from the flu and these chronic conditions include:

  • Chronic asthma or any lung disease
  • Epilepsy
  • Heart disease
  • Sickle cell disease
  • Cancer
  • Children under age 2
  • Lung problems
  • Diabetes
  • Neurological problems

If your child is above the age of six months old and has a higher risk of flu-related complications due to other chronic health conditions it is recommended that they get an annual influenza vaccination to help mitigate the symptoms and possibly prevent them from getting the flu.

What are the treatment options for the flu in children?

There is no specific cure for the flu but there are antiviral medications that can be used to help treat it.

These antiviral medicines work best when they are started within 48 hours of your child coming down with the flu.

Antiviral medications can help to reduce the severity of symptoms and shorten the duration of the illness by a day or two.

The most common antiviral medications used to treat the flu are oseltamivir (Tamiflu), zanamivir (Relenza), peramivir (Rapivab), and baloxavir marboxil (Xofluza).

All four of these antiviral drugs are approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and can be prescribed by your child's doctor.

Your child needs to also get plenty of rest, drink lots of fluids, and take over-the-counter fever-reducing medicine such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen to help relieve fever and muscle aches.

If their cough is severe, you can also give them over-the-counter cold medicines that suppress coughs. Do not give your child aspirin as it can increase the risk of developing Reye’s syndrome.

You may also use a nasal bulb on infants to clear any nasal mucus or use a saline nose drops or nasal spray to also help.

Antibiotics may be prescribed for a bacterial infection such as an ear infection or bacterial pneumonia but they do not help fight against viral infection and will not help with the symptoms of the flu.

As always, read the label on any drug you give your sick child to ensure they receive the correct dose and do not give your child any medication without consulting a doctor first if your child is under the age of six, according to the American Academy of Pediatricians.

When do I need to take my child to the doctor with the flu?

You need to take your child to a doctor or health care provider if he or she has severe symptoms, is at risk for complications, if the symptoms continue to get worse, or if new symptoms arise.

If your child starts to experience any of the following symptoms, it is important to seek immediate medical attention as these are signs that your child may be experiencing complications from the flu:

  • Bluish skin color or gray skin color
  • Difficulty breathing or rapid breathing
  • Not drinking enough fluids and showing dehydration symptoms due to severe diarrhea or vomiting such as lethargy, not being able to cry tears, urinating more infrequently or not having a wet diaper for six or more hours, or being more irritable than normal
  • Seizures

Consult with your child's pediatrician if you have any questions or are worried about their symptoms.

What are the best ways to prevent the flu in children?

The best way to prevent the flu is by getting your child vaccinated with the yearly flu vaccine, especially if they are at a higher risk for flu complications or if someone in their immediate family is also at a higher risk of getting complications from the flu.

The influenza vaccine is safe and effective and it is recommended for everyone six months of age and older by the CDC.

Some children under the age of eight may get an initial shot and then another booster shot a couple of weeks later.

The flu shot usually takes two weeks to become fully effective for the prevention of influenza so it is best to get vaccinated as soon as the vaccine becomes available in your community which is usually between August and October.

Side effects of the flu shot include redness, swelling, and soreness around the location of the injection. Your child may also experience mild flu-like symptoms such as a low-grade fever or headache for a day or two after getting the flu shot.

There are also other simple ways to help avoid the spread of the flu and these include:

  • Having your child wash their hands frequently
  • Avoiding direct contact with sick people
  • Having your child sneeze into the crook of their arm or into a tissue but not their hands
  • Disinfecting high-contact surfaces such as countertops, remote controls, light switches, door knobs, tablets, phones, etc.
  • Avoiding touching the face, nose, and mouth as much as possible
  • Eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly to help boost the immune system

If you or your child are sick with the flu, it is important to stay home for at least 24 hours after the fever is gone without the use of fever-reducing medication as this will help prevent spreading the flu to other people.

Summary

The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat, and sometimes the lungs. It can cause mild to severe illness but is often more severe in children.

There are antiviral treatment options available if your child becomes sick with the flu and there are other treatment options you can administer to them from home.

The best way to prevent the flu is by getting your child vaccinated each year with the influenza vaccine.

The flu shot usually takes two weeks to become fully effective so it is best to get vaccinated as soon as the vaccine becomes available in your community which is usually between August and October.

There are also other simple ways to help avoid the spread of the flu which we list above.

If you have any more questions about the flu and children, please consult with your child's doctor or health care provider.

References, Studies, and Sources:

WebMD

Johns Hopkins Medicine

Texas Children's Hospital 

CDC

Caring for Kids