Keeping Your Kid Healthy: Is it a cold or the flu?

November 14, 2019

Falling temperatures signal the start of cold and influenza (flu) season, which will bring more children into the Mercy Kids ER. We asked Dr. Timothy Casper, a pediatric emergency physician at Mercy Hospital South, what parents need to know to prepare themselves for the flu season.


How can parents tell whether their child has influenza (flu) or something else?

There's a fair amount of confusion about this that I hear regularly from the parents who bring their kids to us for care. Influenza is a respiratory viral infection that has a seasonal peak in winter. Some people talk about a "stomach flu" typically meaning a short viral gastroenteritis. Other times, people tell me that they had "the flu" but were only sick for a weekend - that's typically a common viral upper respiratory infection (URI).

Influenza symptoms tend to be more severe and can last longer than other common viral URIs. Kids with influenza infection often have body aches and high fevers in addition to cough, congestion and gastrointestinal complaints. Symptoms typically last about a week.


What symptoms are a sign parents need to take their child to their primary care physician, an urgent care or an emergency room?

If parents notice influenza symptoms, my general advice is to call their pediatrician's office if they are concerned. Urgent cares can be convenient, but your pediatrician knows your child better. There are medications that treat the influenza virus if started early, but side effects can be significant in some kids. Realistically, few healthy, school-age kids require anything more than supportive treatment at home. Infants or kids with breathing problems or serious medical issues should be evaluated promptly. If dehydration, difficulty breathing or other severe symptoms show up, that is typically going to need the emergency room. In the ER, I also look for pneumonia or other bacterial complications of the flu, which can cause a kid who was starting to turn the corner to abruptly become sicker.


What can parents do to prevent their children from contracting the flu?

I recommend the whole family get the vaccine as soon as possible. Hand washing and wiping down surfaces can certainly be helpful, but kids share germs like it's their full-time job. If your child is sick, keep them out of school or daycare.


Are there risks to the flu vaccine?

There are a lot of people who think the flu vaccine "gave them the flu." However, the flu shot is not a live virus, so it can't infect you. Common side effects are injection site reactions, low-grade fever and body aches. Personally, my arm is always sore, and I usually get some body aches the night after my shot. That achy feeling is a sign of the immune response. Other complications from the flu shot are rare.

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