How to Treat Your Child's Flu Symptoms

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It is a rite of passage every parent has to go through eventually: The first time your child gets sick. But just because illnesses are an inevitability, that doesn’t make seeing your child sick any easier.

This can be especially true with the flu, where fevers often run high and congestion can impact your child’s ability to breathe. And when your young child can’t effectively communicate to you how they are feeling, it can feel impossible to know how to best help them. It also may have you wondering when you should call their healthcare provider. Ahead, experts share some best practices for treating your child's flu and keeping them comfortable.

Is It the Flu or Something Else?

It isn’t always easy to tell the difference between the flu and a cold or another virus. Symptoms are often similar. And a cold that can be ridden out at home can sometimes knock a child out just as easily as the flu.

But with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reporting that children 5 years and younger are at a higher risk of developing dangerous flu-related complications, knowing when a child has the flu versus a simple cold can be important.

Victoria Glass, MD

Colds usually appear gradually and flu symptoms come on quickly, meaning your child will seem sicker if they have the flu.

— Victoria Glass, MD

“Colds usually appear gradually and flu symptoms come on quickly, meaning your child will seem sicker if they have the flu,” says Victoria Glass, MD, a practicing pediatrician and researcher in Iowa. “Also, the flu has distinctive symptoms from colds such as muscle aches, chills, and dizziness.”

Both illnesses tend to peak around the same time of year (between fall and winter), and with kids returning to in-person schooling, their exposure to cold and flu germs will once again be increasing.

Major Flu Symptoms

There are other ways to tell the difference beyond just the progression of symptoms. “If it is a cold, your toddler may feel somewhat worse than the usual,” says Daniel Boyer, MD, also a pediatrician and researcher at Farr Institute.

He explains that a cold typically presents with a low-grade fever, a cough that gets worse at night, and a runny nose.

Meanwhile, the flu can often be distinguished by a sudden high temperature that persists despite fever-reducing medications; a child who is feeling much more tired than usual, sleeping more, and engaging in fewer activities; and a sore throat, dry cough, runny nose, and vomiting or diarrhea.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) adds that when a child has the flu, they typically spike a sudden fever of 101 degrees Fahrenheit or more, while also experiencing headaches, body aches, and chills.

Flu Symptoms

  • A fever of 101 degrees Fahrenheit that persists despite medication
  • Fatigue
  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Body ache
  • Sore throat
  • Dry cough
  • Runny nose
  • Vomiting or diarrhea

At-Home Remedies for the Flu

In most cases, the flu can be treated at home. Parents need to monitor their child’s progress and ensure they stay hydrated and well-rested. “The flu can cause a variety of symptoms and effects, ranging from mild to severe,” Dr. Boyer says. “This is why parents should ensure the right treatment for their toddler.”

Daniel Boyer, MD

The flu can cause a variety of symptoms and effects, ranging from mild to severe. This is why parents should ensure the right treatment for their toddler.

— Daniel Boyer, MD

With home treatment, he says that can include getting lots of rest, drinking plenty of fluids, and using a humidifier to help with breathing.

Dr. Glass adds that over-the-counter medications like children's Motrin, Advil, or Tylenol may be used to help treat symptoms. However, she warned against aspirin. “Do not give your child aspirin because of the high risk of getting Reye's syndrome," she explains.

Other at-home remedies she recommended (besides fluids and warm vapor) include a teaspoon of honey for kids over one year. When it comes to honey, researchers have found that honey can actually be more effective and less potentially harmful than other treatment methods for upper respiratory tract infections. The AAP agrees with Dr. Glass that it should never be given to children younger than a year old because of the risk of botulism.

Always make sure you check with your child’s healthcare provider before testing out any at-home remedy or supplement.

When to See a Doctor for the Flu

“Most healthy people, including children, can recover from the flu without complications,” Dr. Boyer says. “But if your toddler has any underlying medical condition like asthma, lung diseases, or heart disease, then the flu can develop into something more serious.”

And sometimes, even without underlying conditions, the flu can simply take a nasty turn. “If your toddler starts to develop severe medical complications caused by the flu then you should seek a doctor's appointment immediately," Dr. Boyer says.

Daniel Boyer, MD

If your toddler starts to develop severe medical complications caused by the flu then you should seek a doctor's appointment immediately.

— Daniel Boyer, MD

According to Dr. Glass, complications that warrant a trip to the doctor include difficulty breathing or a fever that spikes. The AAP says that any fever over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit for infants and above 104 degrees Fahrenheit for older children should result in a call to your child’s healthcare provider.

Dr. Boyer says that parents should skip the pediatrician and head straight to the ER if your child has shortness of breath, becomes unresponsive, experiences excessive vomiting, or appears dehydrated (symptoms include decreased urination, dry lips, or sunken eyes).

Your healthcare provider can prescribe medications that may help treat your child's flu. “Oseltamivir (Tamiflu) works against the flu virus and is safe to give to toddlers,” Dr. Boyer says. As the CDC points out, Tamiflu has proven effective in preventing respiratory failure and death in children.

When in Doubt

It is important to remember that your child’s healthcare provider is there to help you and your child through any illnesses that may arise. Most would rather you error on the side of caution, bringing your child in even if their illness may not seem severe than to sit at home worrying and wondering whether or not to bring them in.

Your child’s healthcare provider is your family’s ally. They want to help. And for new parents dealing with that first illness, sometimes the peace of mind that comes with seeing a physician can help to ease the stress so that everyone can focus solely on helping the child to get better.

In other words: Don’t ever hesitate to pick that phone up and ask if your child should be seen. If your gut is telling you something isn’t right, or if you’re worried you may not be equipped to help treat your child’s symptoms, call.

A Word From Verywell

Most children will come down with the flu at some point. Usually, it can be successfully managed at home with rest, fluids, and over-the-counter medication. If your child seems to get very sick, or experiences a high fever, excessive vomiting, trouble breathing, or signs of dehydration, you should seek medical care. Remember, your child's healthcare provider is there to help. If you are ever in doubt, you can give them a call.

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5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Flu & Young Children. Updated September 2021.

  2. HealthyChildren.org. The Flu: What Parents Need to Know. Updated October 2021.

  3. Abuelgasim H, Albury C, Lee J. Effectiveness of honey for symptomatic relief in upper respiratory tract infections: a systematic review and meta-analysisBMJ Evidence-Based Medicine. 2021;26(2):57-64. doi:0000-0002-2498-090X.

  4. HealthyChildren.org. When to Call the Pediatrician: Fever. Updated November 2015.

  5. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children and Flu Antiviral Drugs. Updated September 2020.