On the Pulse

The Sick Day Guessing Game: Cold or Flu?

2.19.2015 | Heather Cooper

Your child wakes up not feeling well and says they can't go to school. You make your assessment by taking their temperature or noticing that they aren't acting or looking normal, call school to report the absence, and then start the process of figuring out how to help your child feel more comfortable. Sound familiar?

As cold and flu season have ramped up, this scenario has been playing out in many homes. The tricky thing is that it’s not always easy to know how to help your child feel better.

Gather clues to make a diagnosis

It can be hard to get your child to accurately describe how they’re feeling. Is their throat sore? Does their head hurt? Do they have chills? Is their appetite normal? And what do the answers to those questions mean?

If you’re trying to tell the difference between a cold and the flu, one difference is that a cold is centered on the nose. With the flu, your child feels like their whole body is sick. They may have headaches, muscle aches, chills and a high fever. Most often, the flu comes on quicker than a cold and it makes them feel more exhausted than when they have the sniffles. Flu is also more likely to affect their appetite.

Make a game plan for treatment

If your child has a chronic health condition and has flu symptoms or is under 5 with flu symptoms, call your doctor. Your doctor may prescribe antiviral medicine to prevent serious health problems from the flu.

Also, call your doctor if your child has:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Neck pain
  • Convulsions
  • A fever of 104 degrees Fahrenheit or higher
  • Rash
  • Signs of dehydration (has not wet a diaper or gone pee in eight hours)

You know your child best. If your child doesn’t look or seem right, please talk with their doctor.

Most kids with only mild cold or flu symptoms can be treated at home. While over-the-counter medicine manufacturers lead us to believe that there’s a ‘just-right’ medicine for each combination of symptoms, it’s best to focus on treating how your child feels, rather than their symptoms. The goal is to help your child feel better and prevent the spread of their illness to others.

“Fevers are the body’s natural response to infection. Treat the child, not the fever,” says Dr. Matthew Kronman, who specializes in infectious diseases at Seattle Children’s.

If you believe your child is uncomfortable because of fever and is over three months old, you may give acetaminophen (Tylenol) every four hours while there is fever. Use the measuring tool that comes with the medicine to give the right amount based on your child's weight.

Rest is important, whether a cold or the flu is causing your child’s illness. If fever is present, keep your child cool by avoiding overdressing or piling on lots of blankets. Encourage quiet activities and naps. Offer small amounts of fluid frequently, even if your child doesn’t feel thirsty. Water, juice, decaffeinated tea and broth are good choices. A cool-mist humidifier or saltwater nose drops can help with cough and congestion.

Prevention is key

The single best way to prevent flu is to get the flu vaccine.

“It’s very important for parents to understand that the flu can be very serious in children and they should take action to protect their family through vaccination,” says Kronman.

Everyone over 6 months old should get a flu vaccine each year. There is no vaccine to prevent the common cold. In addition to getting the flu vaccine each year, Kronman urges everyone to “Wash your own, and your child’s hands thoroughly and often, avoid others who are sick, get enough sleep and stay hydrated.”