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Flu Symptoms: How to Treat Influenza and When to Call Your Doctor

By Charles Sprague, M.D.

The flu image

​Influenza is one of the most severe illnesses of the winter season. Reaching its peak in January and February, this respiratory viral infection is in season from October to mid-May.

Influenza is most contagious during the first 24 to 36 hours of contracting the virus, but symptoms indicating that a child has the flu usually do not appear for one to seven days.

What is Influenza?

Influenza is not the same as the stomach "flu" virus which causes diarrhea and vomiting. The influenza virus is a highly contagious virus that attacks the respiratory system including your nose, throat and lungs. It can affect 5–20% of the United States population annually, with more than 200,000 individuals hospitalized.

Most Common Flu Symptoms

Flu symptoms will vary from child to child, but the most common signs of the flu are:​

  • High fever
  • Cough
  • Congestion/runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Body aches
  • Headaches
  • Lack of energy
  • Dizziness
  • Chills
  • Vomiting

Treating Flu Symptoms

The treatment your child should receive depends on his or her main symptoms. Boys Town Pediatrics suggests these home remedies:

  • Fever or body aches: Give acetaminophen every six hours or ibuprofen every eight hours. Do not give aspirin to a child or teenager with the flu, as it may lead to Reye's syndrome, a disease that affects the brain and liver.
  • Cough: Give children over 1 year of age 1/2 teaspoon of honey, or corn syrup if honey is not available, and children over 4 years of age cough drops.
  • Sore throat: Give warm chicken broth to children over 1 and hard candy to children over 4.
  • Stuffy nose: Use warm water or saline nose drops. For infants and young children, suction at least four times a day.

Flu Prevention

The best defense against influenza is to take the annual flu vaccine.

Children who attend daycare or school are particularly susceptible to the flu. Influenza is most contagious during the first 24 to 36 hours of contracting the virus, but symptoms indicating that a child has the flu usually do not appear for one to seven days.

Tips to Prevent Influenza (Flu) in Children

When to Call Your Doctor

If complications occur, such as sinus pain or pressure, earache or a fever that lasts longer than three days, call your child's physician during office hours. If your child develops a very high fever, has a seizure, is having difficulty breathing or starts to act very sick, call your physician immediately.​