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Step-by-Step Guide: Taking Action if Your Child Suspects the Flu

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Understanding the Flu: Is It the Common Cold or Something More?

As we find ourselves in the midst of influenza season, it's only natural for parents to be concerned when they hear their child coughing. The question arises - could this be the flu? While the flu and the common cold are distinct illnesses, distinguishing between the two can be challenging, particularly in the early stages. Flu symptoms typically manifest suddenly and may include fever, runny nose, cough, sore throat, headache, muscle aches, fatigue, and an overall feeling of being unwell. In some cases, individuals may also experience vomiting and diarrhea. It's important to note that not everyone exhibits all of these symptoms, and the severity of the illness can vary from mild to severe. So, what steps should you take if you suspect your child may have the flu?

Call Your Doctor for Expert Guidance

Seeking medical advice is crucial. While an appointment may not be necessary, it's essential to contact your healthcare provider and describe your child's symptoms in detail. Based on the symptoms exhibited and the specific circumstances surrounding your child (such as any existing medical conditions or vulnerable individuals, like infants or the elderly, residing in your household), your doctor will determine whether your child should be brought in for assessment and potentially prescribed antiviral medication. Given the unique nature of each situation, it's vital to receive tailored advice regarding your child's health and well-being. Once you've obtained this guidance or have returned home with a confirmed flu diagnosis...

Prepare for the Flu Season

There are several supplies that can help ease the burden of dealing with the flu, including:

  • Acetaminophen and ibuprofen to alleviate fever and aches
  • A reliable thermometer (if you don't already have one)
  • Hand sanitizer (keep multiple bottles throughout the house)
  • Tissues for hygienic purposes
  • Fluids to keep your child hydrated, such as clear juices, broth, oral rehydration solution (for infants), and popsicles (ideal for soothing sore throats; consuming them is equivalent to consuming liquids). If you lack a refillable water bottle (one with a straw is convenient when children are lying down), consider acquiring one.
  • Honey (for children over one year old) and cough drops (for preschool-age children and older)
  • Saline nose drops for congestion relief
  • A humidifier (if you don't already own one)
  • Simple yet nourishing foods like noodle soups, rice, crackers, and toast

Ensure Adequate Rest for Your Child

Limit or turn off electronic screens, as they can impede sleep when the body requires rest the most. Keep the rooms dimly lit and minimize activity. If your child is unable to sleep, engaging in quiet activities such as reading (or reading to them), drawing, or playing card games is recommended.

Prioritize Fluid Intake and Don't Stress Over Food

Hydration is paramount when battling the flu. Opt for beverages with a bit of sugar and salt, making choices like juices and broths ideal. If your child only wishes to consume water, provide them with some crackers to ensure they acquire the necessary sugar and salt. However, do not worry if their appetite is diminished, as they will regain their appetite as they start feeling better.

Stay Vigilant for Warning Signs

Although most children recover from the flu without complications, certain cases can be severe. Contact your doctor or visit an emergency room if your child experiences any of the following:

  • A persistent high fever (102°F or higher) that does not subside with acetaminophen or ibuprofen, or the recurrence of a fever after your child appeared to be improving
  • Any difficulty in breathing
  • Severe pain of any kind
  • Excessive drowsiness, making it challenging to awaken them or keep them awake
  • Difficulty in drinking or keeping fluids down
  • Any unusual or concerning symptoms (always trust a parent's instincts)

Keep Your Child at Home Until Recovery

While being completely free of coughing or a runny nose may not be a condition for returning to school or daycare, it is essential that your child is fever-free for at least 24 hours and exhibits enough energy to engage in the activities that school or daycare demands. This not only promotes your child's recovery but also helps prevent the spread of influenza. This leads us to our final point...

Prevent the Spread of Influenza

In addition to keeping your child at home (and staying home yourself if you fall ill), there are additional measures you can take to minimize the risk of infection:

  • Ensure everyone in the household frequently washes their hands (the availability of hand sanitizer throughout the house can be particularly useful)
  • Teach everyone to cover their coughs and sneezes with their elbow, not their hands
  • Avoid the sharing of cups, utensils, towels, and throw blankets
  • Regularly sanitize surfaces and toys
  • Discourage visitors and consider virtual visits instead
  • Exercise caution regarding physical contact. While some degree of contact and affection is inherent to parenthood, siblings may need to maintain some distance. In lieu of physical hugs, blowing kisses and engaging in pretend hugs can provide comfort.

It's crucial to remember that it's never too late to get a flu shot if you haven't already. To delve deeper into the topic of flu prevention and management, consider visiting flu.gov.

William H. McDaniel, MD

Dr. Robert H. Shmerling is the former clinical chief of the division of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), and is a current member of the corresponding faculty in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

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