Influenza (Flu) in Children
Influenza (flu) is a very contagious viral infection that affects
the air passages of the lungs. It causes a high fever, body aches, a cough, and other
symptoms. It's one of the most severe and common viral illnesses of the winter season.
Most children are ill with the flu for less than a week. But some children have a
serious illness and may need to be treated in the hospital. The flu may also lead
lung infection (pneumonia) or death.
Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC says getting a flu
vaccine is more important than ever to protect yourself and the people around you
The flu is caused by flu viruses.
Flu viruses are divided into 3 types:
Influenza types A and B. These 2 types of viruses cause
widespread illness (epidemics) almost every winter. They often lead to more people
needing to go to the hospital, and more people dying from the flu. Public health
officials focus on stopping the spread of types A and B. One of the reasons the flu
remains a problem is because the viruses change (mutate) often. This means
that people are exposed to new types of the viruses each year.
Influenza type C. This type of virus causes a very mild
respiratory illness. It rarely causes epidemics. It does not have the severe public
health impact that influenza types A and B do.
A flu virus is often passed from
child to child through sneezing or coughing. The virus can also live for a short time
on surfaces. This includes doorknobs, toys, pens or pencils, keyboards, phones and
tablets, and counter tops. It can also be passed through shared eating utensils and
drinking. Your child can get a flu virus by touching something that was touched by
infected person, and then touching his or her mouth, nose, or eyes.
People are most contagious with the
flu 24 hours before symptoms start, and while symptoms are most active. The risk of
infecting others usually ends around day 7 of the illness. Because the flu can be
before symptoms start, it’s easy to pick up a flu virus. This is true especially with
children, who often touch many surfaces and then their mouth, nose, or eyes.
A child is more at risk for the flu if he or she:
- Is around people infected with the flu
- Has not had the flu vaccine
- Does not wash his or her hands after touching infected surfaces
Young children and children with certain underlying health conditions are at increased
risk for a hospital stay or severe or complicated influenza infection.
The flu is a respiratory disease, but it can affect the whole body. A child can become
suddenly ill with any or all of these symptoms:
- Fever, which may be as high as 103°F (39.4°C) to 105°F (40.5°C)
- Body aches, which may be severe
- Sore throat
- Cough that gets worse
- Runny or stuffy nose
In some cases, your child may also have symptoms such as:
Most children recover from the flu within a week. But they may still feel very tired
for as long as 3 to 4 weeks.
It’s important to note that a cold and the flu have different symptoms:
|Low or no fever
|Sometimes a headache
||Headache in most cases
|Stuffy, runny nose
||Clear nose, or stuffy nose in some cases
||Sneezing in some cases
|Mild, hacking cough
||Cough, often turning severe
|Mild body aches
||Severe body aches
||Extreme tiredness that can last weeks
||Sore throat in some cases
A cold is usually mild and often goes away after a few days. The flu can cause severe
symptoms and lead to problems such as pneumonia and even death. The symptoms of the
flu can be like other health conditions. Make sure your child sees his or her healthcare
provider for a diagnosis.
The healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and health history. He
or she will give your child a physical exam. The symptoms are often enough to diagnose
the flu. Your child’s provider may do other tests, depending on your child’s symptoms
and overall health.
Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also
depend on how severe the condition is. The goal of treatment is to help prevent or
Treatment may include medicines
Acetaminophen. This is to help lessen
body aches and fever. Don't give aspirin to a child with a fever.
Antiviral medicine. This may help to
ease symptoms, and shorten the length of illness. This medicine does not cure the
flu. The medicine must be started within 2 days after symptoms start.
Antibiotics aren’t effective
against viral infections, so they are not prescribed. They may be used, though, if
child has developed bacterial pneumonia. Otherwise, treatment focuses on helping ease
your child’s symptoms until the illness passes.
Talk with your healthcare providers about the risks, benefits, and possible side effects
of all medicines.
Also make sure your child:
- Gets lots of rest in bed
- Drinks plenty of fluids
The flu can cause severe breathing problems. A child with severe
symptoms may need to stay in the hospital. The flu can lead to a lung infection called
pneumonia. In some cases, the flu can lead to death.
Children who have other health conditions that affect breathing, like
asthma, are at greater risk for flu complications.
The best way to prevent flu is to
have the yearly flu vaccine. Each year, a new flu vaccine is available before the
of the flu season. Flu shots and nasal spray are available. Talk with your healthcare
provider if you have questions about how vaccines work and how well they prevent
The flu vaccine is most often given as a shot into the muscle. For
babies and young children, it's given as a shot in the thigh muscle. In older children,
it's given as a shot in the upper arm muscle. It's also available as a nasal spray
healthy children over the age of 2, including teens who are not pregnant. Check with
your child’s healthcare provider to see which is the best choice for your child.
The first time a child between the
ages of 6 months and 8 years gets a flu vaccine, he or she will need a second flu
vaccine 1 month later. This is to build up protection against the flu. Get your child’s
first dose as soon as the vaccine is available to allow the second dose to be given
the end of October. This will give your child the best protection for the flu season.
After the first flu season, your child will need only 1 dose.
The vaccine is advised for all
children 6 months and older. But for some children, it’s more critical for them to
flu shot because they are more likely to have complications from the flu. The flu
should be given to any child who has any of these:
- A long-term heart or lung
- An endocrine disorder such as
- A kidney or liver disorder
- Weak immune system from HIV/AIDS or
- A blood disorder such as sickle cell
A flu shot should also be given
- A child who has a family member with a
chronic health condition
- A child or teen taking aspirin
as long-term therapy
- A child with parents or caregivers at
high risk of complications from the flu
Some side effects of the vaccine
can be like mild flu symptoms, but the vaccine does not cause the flu. Side effects
be prevented by taking over-the-counter medicines such as acetaminophen. Never give
child aspirin without talking to your child's healthcare provider first. Possible
effects of the flu vaccine include:
- Soreness in the arm where the shot was
- Short-term symptoms such as mild
headache or a low-grade fever for about 1 day after the shot
- In rare cases, an allergic reaction in
a child who has a severe allergy to eggs. Vaccines are available for those with an
In addition to the flu vaccine, you
can do other things to help reduce your child’s risk of getting the flu. You can
- Limit your child’s contact with
infected people, if possible.
- Have your child wash his or her hands
And you can help prevent your child
spreading the flu to others if you:
- Have your child cover his or her nose
and mouth when coughing or sneezing. Use a tissue or cough or sneeze in the crook
- Wash your hands before and after
caring for your child.
- Clean surfaces in the home that others
When to Call a Healthcare Provider
Call the healthcare provider if your child has:
- Symptoms that don’t get better, or get worse
- New symptoms
- Influenza (flu) is a very contagious viral infection of the respiratory system.
- It causes a high fever, body aches, a cough, and other symptoms.
- Most children are ill with the flu for less than a week. But some children have a
more serious illness and may need to be treated in the hospital. The flu may also
lead to lung infection (pneumonia) or death.
- The flu may be treated with
acetaminophen, cough medicine, and antiviral medicine. Your child will also need lots
of rest and plenty of fluids.
- The best way to prevent flu is to have the yearly flu vaccine. Because the viruses
change, researchers create a new flu vaccine each year to help protect against strains
of the virus that are currently active. The vaccine is advised for all children 6
months and older.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:
- Know the reason for the visit and what you want to happen.
- Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
- At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments,
or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.
- Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help your child.
Also know what the side effects are.
- Ask if your child’s condition can be treated in other ways.
- Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
- Know what to expect if your child does not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
- If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose
for that visit.
- Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours. This is important
if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.