Caring for Your Sick Child

What to Do for Colds or Influenza

Child sick in bed.

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When your kid is sick with a cold or any respiratory virus, most parents jump to action. When it comes to most common respiratory viruses, however, your child usually just needs lots of TLC for their symptoms—not a prescription or over-the-counter medication. If your child has influenza (the flu), a prescription can help, but they'll still need at-home care to relieve their symptoms. Here's what to do and what to watch for when your child is sick.

Colds vs. Influenza

First, be sure you know how to distinguish a cold from the flu, because a child with the flu may need to see a doctor. "Colds and flu are both highly contagious and, in the initial stages, a bad cold and a mild case of the flu might seem alike," according to the Centers for Disease Control. "However, flu is a serious illness that can have life-threatening complications, unlike colds." The flu usually comes on suddenly and may include these symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Tiredness/weakness (can be extreme)
  • Dry cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Body or muscle aches
  • Diarrhea and vomiting (These less common flu symptoms are mostly seen in children.)

Note that influenza is different from what many people call "stomach flu." Influenza is a respiratory illness. A stomach bug affects the gastrointestinal tract, and the two main symptoms are vomiting and diarrhea.

When to Call the Doctor

If you suspect that your child has the flu, seek treatment within the first 48 hours in order to receive antiviral medications such as Tamiflu.

Even if you don't suspect the flu, contact your doctor right away if your child has any of these symptoms:

  • High (over 100.4 F) or prolonged (three or more days) fever, or any fever in a baby younger than 3 months
  • Fast breathing or trouble breathing
  • Bluish skin color
  • Not drinking enough fluids (showing signs of dehydration)
  • Changes in mental status, such as not waking up or not interacting or being so irritable that the child does not want to be held
  • Seizures
  • Flu-like symptoms that improve but then return with fever and worse cough
  • Worsening of underlying chronic medical conditions (for example, heart or lung disease, diabetes)

Caring for a Sick Child

If you're caring for your sick kid at home, check with your doctor before giving any over-the-counter medicines. Some have ingredients that are not recommended for children. Others may not be recommended for the symptoms your child has, and most should not be given to children under the age of 2.

Make your child comfortable and let them sleep as much as possible. Keep their door open and the house quiet. Check on them frequently to make sure the sheets are dry and to gauge their fever and breathing. Keep water within reach for when they awaken.

Almost every sick child needs lots of rest and lots of fluids.

Fever

High fevers are common in children and very scary for parents, but are a sign that your child's body is fighting back against an infection. Dress your child in lightweight, breathable clothes. Make sure they rest a lot and drinks plenty of fluids (such as water, juice, and Popsicles).

Don't give aspirin to children or teens due to the risk of Reye's syndrome. Tylenol (acetaminophen) can help bring down a fever. Advil (ibuprofen) is also acceptable for children over the age of 6 months. Again, check with your doctor before giving medicine, even over-the-counter products made for children. Sometimes dosages can be confusing.

Vomiting

A frequent dilemma with a high fever is vomiting that prevents the fever-reducing medication from doing its job. Acetaminophen suppositories can be kept in the refrigerator for just such emergencies. Bring the fever down with a suppository and the vomiting often eases. Occasionally, doctors will prescribe a Phenergan (promethazine) suppository for very serious vomiting in a child.

For milder cases, keep a bucket or basin and some old towels handy. Offer the child small sips of water and bland foods if they can tolerate them. Watch for signs of dehydration.

Dehydration

Fluids are important for easing upper respiratory symptoms (like coughing and sneezing) as well as for critical rehydration if your child has diarrhea or is vomiting. Keep Pedialyte on hand for times when your child experiences diarrhea and vomiting with a fever.

Easing Cold Symptoms

Ask your doctor about over-the-counter cold remedies. Keep your child distracted with quiet activities like books, games, and crafts. Frozen juice feels great on a sore throat, or your child may want to suck on ice chips or try some warm herbal tea or water with honey and lemon (just don't give honey to babies under one year old). When noses get dry and sore, protect them with a bit of pure petroleum jelly or saline nasal drops. You can also try using a humidifer or vaporizer in your child's bedroom.

A Word From Verywell

Babies under the age of 6 months are a high-risk group for influenza but are too young to be vaccinated. You can protect your baby by ensuring that everyone who cares for him gets the yearly flu vaccine.

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