Colds and the flu - what to ask your doctor - child
What to ask your doctor about colds and the flu - child; Influenza - what to ask your doctor - child; Upper respiratory infection - what to ask your doctor - child; URI - what to ask your doctor - child; Swine flu (H1N1) - what to ask your doctor - child
Many different germs, called viruses, cause colds. Symptoms of the common cold include:
- Runny nose
- Nasal congestion
- Sore throat
The flu is an infection of the nose, throat, and lungs caused by the influenza virus.
Below are some questions you may want to ask your child's health care provider to help you take care of your child with a cold or the flu.
So what's the difference between cold and flu. The two words go together like salt and pepper or like New Year's and weight loss. I'm Dr. Alan Greene and I want to help you figure out what the difference is. Most people have a general idea that they are different, but when pressed have a hard time really saying what the difference is. The cold, the common cold, is something very common you usually get on average 3 or more times during a year. And it is a virus that's primarily in the nose. The cold is focused in the nose. The 3 main symptoms of a cold are sneezing, nasal stuffiness, and runny nose. All are focused in the nose. You may have other symptoms - you may have a fever of 100, 101, maybe you may have some tickling or scratchiness in the back of the throat. In fact, that may be the very first symptom - a little scratch in the back of the throat. Then after a couple days the nasal discharge tends to turn a little bit darker, greener. And then after about a week you're all the way better. But it's focused in the head, focused in the nose. With the flu you're sick all over. It's a whole body disease. It's a much more serious illness. The flu in the United States today still kills about 36,000 people a year. Mostly people who already are weak for some reason or another. But it's a serious illness. And it usually slams into you with a fever. Typically the fever is in the 102 all the way up to a 106 range. A higher fever often the first symptom and you feel sick all over. You have muscle aches, you're tired, you feel out of it, you really feel crummy. And after a couple of days the respiratory symptoms start to come too. And depending where the flu virus settles you might have some sneezing, you might have some coughing. The classic symptom is a dry, hacking kind of cough, could be wheezing, could be other things, but the cough is the most common. Then it's there also for around 7 days or so and then at the end of it you may have another peak of fatigue and a second peak of fever. But usually after about a week you'll start feeling better with most cases of the flu. Colds and flus are very, very different illnesses with a few of the same symptoms.
What are the symptoms of a cold? What are the symptoms of the flu? How can I tell them apart?
- Will my child have a fever? How high? How long will it last? Can a high fever be dangerous? Do I need to worry about my child having febrile seizures?
- Will my child have a cough? Sore throat? Runny nose? Headache? Other symptoms? How long will these symptoms last? Will my child be tired or achy?
- How will I know if my child has an ear infection? How will I know if my child has pneumonia?
- How will I know if my child has swine flu (H1N1) or another type of flu?
Can other people become sick from being around my child? How can I prevent that? What should I do if I have other young children at home? How about somebody who is an older adult?
When will my child start to feel better? When should I worry if my child's symptoms have not gone away?
What should my child eat or drink? How much? How will I know if my child is not drinking enough?
What medicines can I buy at the store to help with my child's symptoms?
- Can my child take aspirin or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)? How about acetaminophen (Tylenol)?
- Can my child take cold medicines?
- Can my child's doctor prescribe stronger medicines to help the symptoms?
- Can my child take vitamins or herbs to make the cold or flu go away quicker? How do I know if the vitamins or herbs are safe?
Will antibiotics make my child's symptoms go away faster? Are there medicines that can make the flu go away faster?
How can I keep my child from getting a cold or the flu?
- Can children have flu shots? What time of year should the flu shot be given? Does my child need one or two flu shots every year? What are the risks of the flu shot? What are the risks for my child by not getting a flu shot? Does the regular flu shot protect my child against swine flu?
- Will a flu shot keep my child from getting colds all year long?
- Can being around smokers cause my child to get the flu more easily?
- Can my child take vitamins or herbs to prevent the flu?
When people started saying that you shouldn't use decongestant, antihistamine, or cough suppressants in kids under 6 or maybe even kids under 12, parents started asking me lots of questions. What do you do when your child has a cold? It's like you've tied both hands behind our backs. I'm Doctor Alan Greene and I'd like to start answering that question. The first thing is, it's not that the doctors are trying to hold back the good stuff. Studies have shown that those things just don't work in children. Children aren't the same as adults, and even though some studies have shown affect in grown-ups before puberty, there's very little evidence that they are helpful and they can cause side effects. There is evidence though that other things help for instance for cough, plain old honey - a spoon full of honey works better than DM cough syrup. Of course you want to save honey for kids over one because of concerns about botulism in babies. Cough drops are another thing that can really help for coughs and for sore throats. When sucking on a cough drop, it can help increase saliva production and antibodies and reduce cough - great thing to do for kids who are old enough that you're sure that they are not going to choke on it, usually four and above. For congestion you might try saline nose washes or saline nose drops can be helpful and shown in some studies to help, and in a number of studies steam has been shown to help, too. You can use a hot shower or a vaporizer if the child is not at an age when they will run over and trip and scald themselves. And if they are at an age of concern, you can get a little personal vaporizer. You can supervise and put their face over it and inhale the steam that way. There are a number of herbs that have been shown to help in different ways, too. Echinacea has been shown in some studies to be helpful for cold and flu. Valerian root for helping kids sleep when they have a cold. Zinc the mineral has been shown to be helpful in colds when kids are zinc deficient and many American kids are, so there are a lot of things you can try but whatever you do try, within a week or so your child's life will be back to normal and it's not worth trying anything that might cause dangerous side affects.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Flu: what to do if you get sick.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Key facts about seasonal flu vaccine.
Cherry JD. The common cold. In: Cherry JD, Harrison GJ, Kaplan SL, Steinbach WJ, Hotez PJ, eds. Feigin and Cherry's Textbook of Pediatric Infectious Diseases. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2019:chap 7.
Rao S, Nyquist A-C, Stillwell PC. Influenza. In: Wilmott RW, Deterding R, Li A, et al. eds. Kendig's Disorders of the Respiratory Tract in Children. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2019:chap 27.
Last reviewed on: 12/10/2021
Reviewed by: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.