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If you’ve ever had influenza (commonly referred to as the flu), you know the feeling: like the worst cold ever. A lot of the symptoms can be similar, but flu symptoms come on quickly and take you down hard. We’ve also got influenza A or influenza B to be confused about and wondering how effective the flu shot will be for flu symptoms this year.

What are the symptoms of the flu?

  • Fever or feeling feverish/chills
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, especially in our kiddos

With the exception of that last bullet point, flu symptoms in kids mirror flu symptoms in adults. The flu is contagious 1 day before symptoms appear and up to 5-7 days after signs of the flu. The most contagious period is the first 3-4 days of having flu symptoms.

Influenza A and influenza B are similar when it comes to symptoms and how it spreads (coughing and sneezing on our poor friends). Influenza A, however, can also be carried and spread by animals (B cannot) so it tends to be worse and spread faster. The flu vaccine protects against both!

When is flu season?

Flu season typically begins in October or November, peaking December through February, but it varies year to year and by location. Flu season ends as late as May.

When is the best time to get a flu shot? Where can we get flu shots?

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommends getting your flu vaccine by the end of October, with the goal of getting it before the flu really starts circulating in your area. But don’t worry if you’ve missed the boat! You can get your flu shot all the way through January and still have it be effective for the current season. It takes 2 weeks for the antibodies to build and start protecting us. Flu vaccines are offered by employers, pharmacies, schools, clinics, urgent cares, etc.

What are the common side effects of the flu shot?

Soreness or redness near the injection site

  • Nausea
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches

These side effects are usually pretty mild and will go away on their own within a couple of days.

The flu vaccine is our best defense against influenza. The vaccine is made each year to target the 3-4 influenza viruses we are most likely to encounter. Depending on the year, it is 70-90% effective in preventing influenza and for those who still get the flu, the severity of symptoms will be lessened for those who received their vaccine. Furthermore, it is not only protecting us but those around us who may be considered high-risk.

Like a cold, most of us can battle this out at home and don’t need to see a doctor. And I know what you’re thinking – how long does the flu last?! Be prepared for our kiddos to feel very sick for at least 3 days and improve from there. It might take a couple of weeks before they return to their rambunctious selves, but the worst of it should be over by that 3 day mark. You need some tools in the toolbox to help them get more comfortable in the meantime though!

How to treat the flu?

  • Fluids! Preventing dehydration keeps other problems at bay. Water, tea, broth, popsicles – all great options when we aren’t feeling great.
  • Medication, such as Tylenol or ibuprofen, for body aches and/or fever. But remember:
    *No medications for our babes <3 months old – just call the doc!
    *No ibuprofen for our babes <6 months old.
    *No cough and cold medicine for our kids <6 years old. Consider avoiding it for kids <12 years old as well. The efficacy is questionable even in adults, so I’d really try not to use it at all.
    *No aspirin for our kids <18 years old.
  • Cool-mist humidifier to moisten the air for their stuffy nose and can help decrease coughing from a dry, scratchy throat. The warm-mist humidifiers increase the risk of a burn, either from the hot steam or from a water spill. It is not proven to be more effective than the cool-mist humidifiers because the heat dissipates too quickly to actually make a difference by the time your kiddo is breathing it in.
  • Cough drops or hard candy to help with that sore throat. Be cognizant of the choking hazard and save these for our older kiddos.
  • Salt water gargle can also help with a sore throat. Adults and kids 6 years and up can try this: mix ¼ teaspoon of salt with 8 oz of warm water. Gargle and spit it out!
  • Rest! This is our body’s biggest tool against any illness. It heals while we sleep!

I heard that my child must be on an antiviral medication (Tamiflu) to “cure” the flu – is that true?

Not necessarily. In low-risk (healthy) children, the flu will run its course – no special tests or medications are needed. With that said, there are certain groups and situations for which treating with an antiviral medication may be indicated.  For example, treatment is generally recommended within the first 48 hours of illness for children under age 2 yrs and sometimes under 5 years of age.  Treatment may also be indicated early in the course of the illness if your kiddo happens to be high-risk (underlying conditions related to the heart, immunosuppressed, diabetes, asthma, etc).  The medication reduces symptoms but does not eliminate them.  Check out www.cdc.gov for the most up to date information regarding influenza treatment guidelines.

Okay, so we’re toughing it out at home. When should I be concerned and see our pediatrician?

Great question! Does it seem like something else is going on? Severe ear pain, throat pain, sinus pain? Call the doc and see if your kiddo has an additional infection. Follow your gut anytime you think the ‘toughing it out at home’ method doesn’t seem appropriate. Also, if the cough and/or flu symptoms carry on past 3 weeks, call your doctor. Fever >104℉ degrees or longer than 3 days? Yep, call the doc. (Except our tiny babes under 3 months old - any fever of 100.4℉ or higher warrants a call to the doctor.) If your kiddo ever has trouble breathing (stridor, wheezing, rapid breathing, blue or gray lips), altered mental status, or decreased responsiveness – head to the ER.

How to protect yourself and others from the flu?

Just like all other illnesses, I will always add: WASH YOUR HANDS! Truly our biggest tool against spreading these viruses to everyone we love. Our babes can head back to school when they feel better and when your Kinsa thermometer shows their fever is gone for 24 hours.

I know how frustrating it is when the world is forced to halt for viruses like this. Enjoy the forced downtime and the extra snuggling; work can wait. Things will be back to normal before you know it!

  • Flu Symptoms & Complications. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/flu/consumer/symptoms.htm.
  • Flu symptoms: Should I see my doctor? (2019, April 25). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/flu/expert-answers/flu-symptoms/faq-20057983.
  • Influenza (flu). (2019, October 4). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/flu/symptoms-causes/syc-20351719.
  • Influenza (flu). (2019, October 4). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/flu/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20351725.
  • Keeping your kids healthy in school. (2019, August 15). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/childrens-health/in-depth/childrens-conditions/art-20044109.
  • Schmitt, B. D. (2018). Pediatric telephone protocols. Itasca, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics.

Blake Wageman

Blake Wageman, RN, BSN has over 14 years of nursing under her belt, primarily focused on NICU babies and, just as importantly, their worried parents.