What to do if you think your child has the flu

A child with dark hair lying in bed looking sick, mother in pink shirt has one hand on his forehead, the other on his hand

Once influenza season is underway, it’s natural that if you hear your child start coughing, you wonder: could this be the flu or another virus? And if you think it is the flu, what should you do?

Is it the flu, RSV, COVID –– or just a cold?

It’s not always easy to tell these illnesses apart, especially at the beginning.

  • Flu: The flu usually comes on suddenly, and its symptoms can include fever, runny nose, cough, sore throat, headache, muscle aches, feeling tired, and generally just feeling rotten. Some people have vomiting and/or diarrhea, too. Not everyone has all these symptoms, and the illness can range from mild to severe.
  • RSV: Along with fever and sore throat (and feeling tired and rotten), RSV often causes a lot of nasal congestion and a mucusy cough. In some babies, it causes wheezing.
  • COVID causes similar symptoms to flu and RSV, but the cough generally isn’t as mucusy, the fatigue can be worse, and some people will lose their sense of taste and/or smell.
  • The common cold generally causes similar symptoms to flu, RSV, and COVID, but milder and often without a fever. However, some people have bad colds — and some people have mild cases of the flu, RSV, or COVID.

Call your doctor for advice

Because these illnesses are so similar, it’s a good idea to call your doctor’s office if your child has cold symptoms. You don’t necessarily need an appointment, but you should call for advice. Describe your child’s symptoms. Based on the symptoms, and your child’s particular situation (such as any medical problems they might have, or vulnerable people like infants or elderly living with you), your doctor

  • may suggest testing for COVID, flu, or RSV
  • may want you to bring your child in
  • may want to prescribe antiviral medication.

Because every child and every situation is different, you should call and get advice that is tailored to your child and family.

What helps when your child has the flu?

Once you’ve called your doctor for advice or have a diagnosis of flu, the steps below will help your child feel more comfortable and speed recovery.

Stock up on supplies

There are a few things that make getting through the flu easier, including:

  • acetaminophen and ibuprofen for fever and aches
  • a reliable thermometer, if you don’t have one
  • hand sanitizer (buy a few to keep all over the house)
  • tissues
  • fluids to keep your child hydrated, such as clear juices, broth, oral rehydration solution (for infants), and popsicles (which are great for sore throats, and eating them is the same as drinking). If you don’t have a refillable water bottle (one with a straw is great if kids are lying down), get one of those too.
  • honey (if your child is older than a year) and cough drops (if your child is at least preschool age)
  • saline nose drops
  • a humidifier, if you don’t have one
  • simple foods like noodle soups, rice, crackers, bread for toast.

Make sure your child rests

Turn off or at least limit the screens, as they can keep children awake when their body needs them to sleep. Keep rooms darkened, and limit activity. If they aren’t sleeping, quiet things like reading (or reading to them), drawing, card games, etc. are best.

Push fluids, don’t worry about food

When children are fighting the flu, the most important thing is that they stay hydrated. They need a bit of sugar and salt too, which is why juices and broths are good choices. If they only want water, give them some crackers to get the sugar and salt — but don’t worry too much if they don’t want to eat more than that. They will eat more when they feel better.

Watch for warning signs

Most children weather the flu fine, but some children get very sick, and there can be complications. Call your doctor or go to an emergency room if your child has

  • a high fever (102° F or higher) that won’t come down with acetaminophen or ibuprofen, or a new fever after your child seemed to be getting better
  • any trouble breathing
  • severe pain of any kind
  • severe sleepiness, so that it’s hard to wake them or keep them awake
  • trouble drinking or keeping fluids down
  • anything that seems strange or worries you (I always respect a parent’s “Spidey sense”).

Keep your child home until they are well

That doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t go to school or daycare until they are cough- or runny nose-free, but it does mean that they have to be fever-free for at least 24 hours, not coughing constantly, able to eat and drink, and have enough energy to do whatever school or daycare entails. Not only is this important for your child’s recovery, but it’s important for preventing the spread of influenza. Which leads me to the last point…

Do your best to keep others from getting sick

Besides keeping your child home (and staying home yourself if you catch it), there are other things you can do, such as:

  • Make sure everyone in the house washes their hands frequently (that’s where the hand sanitizer all over the house comes in handy).
  • Teach everyone to cover coughs and sneezes (they should do it into their elbow, not their hands).
  • Don’t share cups, utensils, towels, or throw blankets.
  • Wipe down surfaces and toys regularly.
  • Discourage visitors (use technology for virtual visits instead).
  • Be thoughtful about physical contact. Some degree of contact and snuggling is part of parenthood, but siblings may want to keep a bit of distance, and you can always blow kisses and do pretend hugs instead of the real thing.

Remember, too, that it’s never too late to get a flu shot if you haven’t already.

To learn more about the flu and what to do, visit flu.gov.

About the Author

photo of Claire McCarthy, MD

Claire McCarthy, MD,
Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Claire McCarthy, MD, is a primary care pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. In addition to being a senior faculty editor for Harvard Health Publishing, Dr. McCarthy …
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