Sick kid? How to get through the flu.

September 8, 2023 Providence Health Team


In this article: 

  • Children who have the flu are usually sicker than when they have a cold, with body ache, fever, chills and fatigue.

  • The best treatment for flu is rest and lots of fluids.

  • Call your Providence provider if your child has a fever higher than 104° F, bluish lips, seizures or a lack of awareness when awake.

There are few things more miserable than having a sick child. Now that it’s the beginning of cold and flu season, many parents are hyper-alert to flu symptoms in their children. But how do you know if it’s really the flu — particularly if you have a child who tends to exaggerate symptoms? Here’s a primer on how to recognize and treat the flu, and when it might be time to seek a health care provider’s help.

Cold or flu

Sometimes, you or your child might think they have the flu when it’s actually just a really bad cold. Here’s how to tell the difference:

Signs of the common cold

  • Gradual onset of symptoms
  • Sneezing
  • Stuffy nose
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Fatigue

Signs of the flu

  • Sudden onset of symptoms
  • Fever (usually above 100.4° F)
  • Body aches
  • Headache
  • Chills
  • Cough
  • Fatigue

Children with the flu usually feel much sicker than children with a cold. “Most of us who have experienced influenza can attest that it really does make you feel much worse than other common cold viruses,” said Brian Simmerman, M.D., division chief of pediatrics for Providence Medical Group – Inland Northwest Washington. “And because it can make you sicker than other cold viruses, it has an increased chance of making you quite ill, requiring more intervention.” 

Treatment for the flu

In general, children with the flu just need lots of rest and fluids while they are recovering. You should definitely keep them home from school until they are feeling better.

If they have a fever, it’s OK to give them acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) or ibuprofen (such as Motrin) in doses that are appropriate for their age. However, you should never give them child aspirin — that can lead to a condition called Reye’s syndrome, a serious illness associated with taking aspirin during a viral infection.

You may consider antiviral medications for your child, but know that this type of medication usually works best when given within one to two days of the start of illness. Antiviral medication may be particularly important in a child who is:

  • Younger than 2 years old
  • In contact with others who are at risk of complications from the flu
  • Having an underlying health condition or issue with their immune system, such as sickle cell anemia, cerebral palsy, diabetes or heart condition disease
  • Not improving from the flu after many days of rest

When to call the doctor

Seek immediate medical care from your Providence provider or a Providence urgent care facility if your child has the flu and develops any of the following symptoms:

  • A high fever over 104° F
  • A fever that goes away, but then returns
  • Any fever at all if they are younger than 3 months old
  • Chest pain, or muscle pain that is so severe it is difficult for your child to walk
  • Bluish lips
  • Seizures
  • A lack of awareness while they are still awake
  • Breathing problems or severe vomiting
  • Dehydration, such as not urinating for eight hours and having no tears when crying
  • Seizures

How to prevent the flu

“Kids love to be social and share small space, making them much more likely to share and pick up illnesses,” said Dr. Simmerman. “So that makes them more likely to pick up influenza, which increases their chances of really getting ill at some point.”

“The best approach to try to diminish flu complications,” Dr. Simmerman continued, “is prevention. We have a great strategy and tools to help prevent influenza through flu vaccines.”

Flu shots are available for all children who are 6 months of age and older, and are most effective when children receive them in September, October or the beginning of November.

Contrary to what some people believe, the flu vaccine does not cause the flu. Rather, it uses the inactivated virus to help your child’s body develop an immunity to the viruses that cause the flu. This immunity fully develops about two weeks after your child gets the shot.

Don’t wait to get your child their flu shot — it could make the difference between a healthy winter and a miserable one.

Contributing Caregiver

Brian Simmerman, M.D., division chief of pediatrics for Providence Medical Group – Inland Northwest Washington

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Related resources

How to protect yourself this flu season

RSV, Flu & COVID: What you need to know

Hunker down at home with a cold or flu

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

About the Author

The Providence Health Team brings together caregivers from diverse backgrounds to bring you clinically-sound, data-driven advice to help you live your happiest and healthiest selves.

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