Updated December 18, 2014.
No one likes having the flu -- it is a miserable illness and makes pretty much everyone feel horrible. Caring for a child with the flu isn't much fun, either. Kids are typically very resilient and will be able to handle the illness better than adults. But there are some special considerations to take into account when caring for a child with the flu.
The symptoms of the flu are similar in children to those of adults.
Children will sometimes have vomiting and diarrhea in addition to the typical upper respiratory symptoms of the flu, but these symptoms are rare in adults.
Because young children are at much higher risk for severe complications from the flu, most of them should be immunized when flu shots become available. The CDC recommends that all children between the ages of 6 months and up to 5 years get the flu shot. In addition to children in that age group, any child with a chronic medical condition such as asthma or a weakened immune system is considered to be at high risk from flu complications and should get the flu shot as soon as it is available.
It is a good idea for children of all ages to get a flu shot if there is no shortage. An alternative for kids over the age of five who have no chronic medical conditions is the nasal flu vaccine.
When it comes to caring for a child sick with the flu, behavior is the most important factor to take into consideration. If a child has a high fever, but is still active and having periods of near normal behavior, it is much less concerning than a child with a low fever who is not happy or somewhat playful at any point.
When assessing fever, there are two exceptions:
- A child between 0 and 3 months old whose rectal temperature is above 100.3 degrees or below 97 degrees needs to be seen immediately by a doctor. Babies this young cannot regulate their temperatures well and temperatures outside this range are a concern.
- A child between 3 and 6 months with a rectal temperature of over 101 degrees needs to be seen by a doctor. While these older babies can regulate body temperature better than when they were younger, a temperature over 101 is a serious concern.
For any child older than 6 months, the best gauge for treatment is the way they are behaving. A fever in itself is not harmful (unless it is caused by environmental factors, such as being out in the sun or in a hot car) and there is no number that is too high. If your child's temperature is 104 degrees, but he is still running around playing, there is no reason for concern and no reason to treat it. If the child is uncomfortable and not playful, then it is fine to treat the fever with Tylenol or ibuprofen (Motrin or Advil). Be sure not to give a child under 18 years old aspirin, because of a serious illness called Reye's Syndrome.
When your child is sick, they also need plenty of fluids and will probably need extra rest. But it is not necessary to make them stay in bed all day if they feel like getting up. Kids are pretty good about not pushing themselves too hard when they don't feel well. So you can feel confident basing your treatment on their behavior.
Treating Vomiting and Diarrhea
If your child is vomiting or having diarrhea, you will want to be sure he does not get dehydrated. Once the vomiting stops, giving small sips of Pedialyte or half-strength Gatorade (mixed half and half with water) is the best way to keep him hydrated and replace the electrolytes he has lost. Remember to space these sips out every 5 to 10 minutes after he has been vomiting so you can be sure he is able to keep the fluids down.
Seeing the Doctor
Of course if you are concerned about your child's symptoms or his behavior, it is always a good idea to call your pediatrician. They will be able to tell you whether you need to bring your child in to be seen or if you can treat his symptoms at home. If you follow these guidelines and use your best judgement, you should be able get your child through the flu and back to himself again soon.
Fever and Your Baby. American Academy of Pediatrics 19 Dec 11. 21 Jan 12.
Treating a Fever Without Medicine. American Academy of Pediatrics 22 Dec 10. 21 Jan 12.
Diarrhea. American Academy of Pediatrics 06 Jan 12. 21 Jan 12.
Key Facts About Influenza (Flu) Vaccine. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Department of Health and Human Services 17 Oct 2006. 17 Jul 2007.