Flu In Children: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, Remedies And Prevention

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Influenza, or the flu, is an acute respiratory infection caused by the influenza virus. The virus is of three types: influenza A, B, and C. Transmission of the virus happens through droplets or direct contact with an infected individual (1).

Influenza outbreaks mostly occur between November and April. Since the influenza viruses change with time, children do not remain immune to them and may get infected every year (2) .

Influenza infections may cause serious illnesses in children. It is estimated that around 20,000 children below five years are hospitalized every year due to influenza-related complications (3). Read this post to learn more about the symptoms, causes, risk factors, treatment, and prevention of the flu in children.

How Does The Flu Spread And How Long Does It Last?

Most healthy children recover from the flu within a week without major complications. However, the cough and fatigue may last longer (mostly one or two weeks) (4) (5).

The influenza viruses reside in the nose and throat and may spread in three ways (5):

  1. Direct contact: Holding hands, kissing, or touching may pass the germs from an infected person to a healthy one.
  1. Indirect contact: Children may get infected if they touch doorbells, toys, or books previously touched by an infected person.
  1. Through the air: The virus may spread through the cough or sneeze droplets of an infected person.

Children are most contagious 24 hours before their symptoms start. The risk of spreading the infection decreases after around seven days of illness (6).

What Are The Causes Of The Flu In Children?

The following types of influenza virus cause the flu (6):

  1. Influenza A and B: These viruses cause serious illnesses and epidemics, even hospitalization and fatality, in the winter season. They are difficult to control since they mutate every year.
  1. Influenza C: These viruses produce no symptoms or cause mild respiratory infections. They do not affect public health in a major way.

What Are The Symptoms Of The Flu In Children?

Most children start feeling sick two days after getting infected. The following are some common symptoms of the flu (4) (5):

Some other symptoms specific to children are (2) (8):

  • Unexplained high fever in newborns and infants
  • Temperature over 39.5°C with convulsions
  • Throat and vocal cord infections, pneumonia (lung infection with air sac inflammation), and bronchitis
  • Diarrhea, vomiting, stomach upset, and abdominal pain
  • Earache and red eyes
  • Leg ache or back pain due to muscle swelling

In rare cases, influenza may cause seizures, unresponsiveness, and confusion or affect the heart and brain (brain dysfunction and encephalopathy). It may also weaken the immune system and cause ear or lung bacterial infections.

Who Is At A Higher Risk Of Contracting The Flu?

Children are at a greater risk of contracting the flu if they (6)

  • Come in contact with infected people
  • Have not been vaccinated
  • Do not wash their hands regularly

How Is The Flu Different From A Cold?

Although the flu and a cold may seem similar, they are different infections. The flu is caused by the influenza virus, while colds may be caused by different viruses.

Cold symptoms are usually mild, accompanied by a sore throat, runny nose, and sneezing. Children who have a cold often maintain good energy levels and eat well. Alternatively, flu symptoms may be severe, such as diarrhea and vomiting, and lead to complications such as pneumonia. Children may also lose their appetite (6) (10).

Some notable differences between colds and the flu are:

Flu In Children: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, Remedies And Prevention

Source: Johns Hopkins Medicine

When Should You See A Doctor?

Flu in children may be diagnosed by examining the (4)

  • Physical symptoms, such as high fever, fatigue, and muscle pain
  • Mucus from the nose or throat in a laboratory

Prompt treatment of influenza is necessary to avoid complications. You should see a doctor in case of these emergency conditions:

Your baby is less than three months old and has (5)

    • Shortness of breath
    • Vomiting
    • Fever (rectal temperature of 38.5°C or more).

Your child is (5) (7)

    • Breathing rapidly and has bluish lips and face
    • Wheezing, having chest pain, or coughing up blood
    • Choking or vomiting due to cough
    • Drinking less fluid and has not urinated for six hours
    • Having severe diarrhea
    • Having severe muscle pain
    • Feeling sleepier than usual
    • Being fussy
    • Not improving after five days
    • Having chronic illness with worsening symptoms
    • Unable to move (limp)
    • Unresponsive
    • Having neck stiffness
    • Having a seizure
    • Looking confused

How Is The Flu Treated In Children?

Flu treatment depends on your child’s age, the severity of their symptoms, and their health condition. Generally, doctors may prescribe antiviral medicines to shorten the duration of the flu by a few days as well as cough medications. However, avoid giving cold and cough medicines to children younger than six years without consulting your healthcare provider (4).

Further, here are some things you can do to relieve their symptoms (5):

  • Dress your child in light clothing and maintain a room temperature of 20°C.
  • Give them plenty of fluids and small nutritious meals.
  • Ensure they take adequate rest.
  • Administer acetaminophen or ibuprofen to reduce the fever and pains.

What Are Some Home Remedies For The Flu?

Here are some steps to follow at home to relieve your child from the flu:

  1. Use a cool-mist humidifier in the room to relieve cough and a stuffy nose. Clean the humidifier after every use or once a day (2).
  1. For infants with stuffy noses, pour a few drops of saline water into the nose and clean the mucus with a rubber suction bulb. Do not do it more than two or three times a day. For older children, use a nasal spray (2) (11)
  1. Give hard sugarless candy made of honey, herbs, or pectin to children above three years to help soothe the throat. Throat lozenges containing benzocaine, menthol, or phenol help numb the throat (5).
  1. Honey helps loosen mucus and relieve cough. Give one to two spoons of honey at night only to children above 12 months (11).
  1. Apply mentholated rubs on the chest and neck of children above two years. The body’s warmth helps release the mentholated rub in the air and soothe cold and cough (12).
  1. Give hot tea to soothe coughs, relieve congestion, and hydrate them. Beverages such as ginger tea (water boiled with fresh or powdered ginger), garlic tea (water boiled with fresh garlic), cinnamon tea (hot water mixed with cinnamon and honey), and golden milk (warm milk with a teaspoon of turmeric) are recommended(13).
  1. Give hot soups to clear congestion and soothe the throat. Chicken noodle soup is popularly used for cold and flu. You may also give your child vegetable soups or chicken vegetable soups (13).
  1. Give a hot foot bath by dipping their feet in warm water for some time (13).
  1. Steam inhalation can help loosen mucus and relieve cough. You may also add eucalyptus oil to the water used for steaming (13).
  1. Encourage them to gargle with warm water.

How To Prevent The Flu In Children?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, influenza may be prevented with vaccination, antiviral medications, and measures to stop the spread (3). Therefore, to prevent the flu in children, ensure that all family members above six months get a flu vaccine every year. You must also ensure that children (4)

  • Wash their hands frequently, especially after using the toilet, coughing or sneezing, and before eating.
  • Never share utensils, towels, cups, or toys.
  • Stay at home when dealing with the flu
  • Cover their mouths while sneezing or coughing
  • Use masks and maintain social distancing (14)

When Should Children Get Vaccinated For The Flu?

Everyone who is above six months should get vaccinated for the flu every year. The best time to get vaccinated is by the end of October, before the influenza season begins.

Some children may need two doses of the flu vaccine. In such cases, the first dose may be given a little earlier and the second dose four weeks later. The body develops antibodies against the virus two weeks after the vaccination (7) (8).

The flu vaccine is especially important for children who are (7) a class=”citation_class” href=” https://www.marchofdimes.org/complications/influenza-and-your-baby.aspx#” target=”_blank” rel=”follow noopener noreferrer”>(15)

What Are the Types Of Flu Vaccines?

Flu vaccines are of two types (7) (8):

  1. Injectable influenza vaccines: These are inactivated vaccines given to those above six months.
  1. Live attenuated influenza vaccine: A nasal spray given to healthy people between two and 49 years. It is not recommended for pregnant women.

What Are The Side Effects Of The Flu Vaccine?

Some common side effects of the flu vaccine are (16)

  • Fever
  • Redness, soreness, or swelling at the site of injection
  • Nasal congestion or sore throat
  • Headaches and muscle aches
  • Fatigue
  • Fainting (in some cases)

In rare cases, vaccines may cause life-threatening allergic reactions such as (16)

  • Breathing problems
  • Wheezing
  • Hives
  • Paleness and weakness
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Dizziness

One or two cases per million people may also develop the Guillain-Barré syndrome (a disorder where the body’s immune system attacks the nerves).

Most children recover from the flu without any major complications; however, it is best not to ignore the symptoms and contact your healthcare provider promptly. Timely management and home remedies will help children recover from the flu faster.

Moreover, consider vaccinating your family against influenza every year to stay healthy and safe.

References:

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  1. Virendra Kumar; (2017); Influenza in Children.
    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27641976/
  2. Paediatr Child Health; (2005); Influenza in children.
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2722601/
  3. Influenza and Children.
    https://www.nfid.org/infectious-diseases/influenza-and-children/
  4. The Flu (Influenza).
    https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/flu.html
  5. Influenza in children.
    https://caringforkids.cps.ca/handouts/health-conditions-and-treatments/influenza_in_children
  6. Influenza (Flu) in Children.
    https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/influenza/influenza-flu-in-children
  7. The Flu: What Parents Need to Know.
    https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/chest-lungs/Pages/The-Flu.aspx
  8. Flu & Young Children.
    https://www.cdc.gov/flu/highrisk/children.htm
  9. People at Higher Risk of Flu Complications.
    https://www.cdc.gov/flu/highrisk/index.htm?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fflu%2Fabout%2Fdisease%2Fhigh_risk.htm
  10. Is It a Cold the Flu or COVID-19?
    https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/flu-vs-cold.html
  11. Tips for Treating the Flu.
    https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/tips-take-care.html
  12. Caring for Your Child’s Cold or Flu.
    https://www.healthychildren.org/English/safety-prevention/at-home/medication-safety/Pages/How-to-Manage-Colds-and-Flu.aspx
  13. Natural cold and flu remedies from around the world.
    https://www.worldvision.org/health-news-stories/natural-cold-flu-remedies-world
  14. Flu (Influenza) | Prevention Diagnosis & Treatments.
    https://www.childrenshospital.org/conditions-and-treatments/conditions/f/flu/prevention-diagnosis-and-treatments#
  15. Influenza (Flu) And Your Baby.
    https://www.marchofdimes.org/complications/influenza-and-your-baby.aspx#
  16. Seasonal Flu Vaccines.
    https://www.cdc.gov/flu/prevent/flushot.htm

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Pragya Bhargavi

Pragya Bhargavi has been in the field of content research, writing and editing for over five years. Her passion for academics and science has enabled her to write creative as well as research-based articles. She has completed her Masters in Microbiology and obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Education (B.Ed). As a writer at MomJunction, Pragya aims to bring about a... more