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How to Know if Your Child Has a Cold or the Flu

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We all worry and want to do everything we can when our child is sick. Unfortunately, though, there is still no cure for the common cold, only home remedies that can ease some of the discomfort. That’s why physicians typically don’t recommend bringing your child in for treatment of a cold — there’s really nothing much we can do, except offer some practical advice (more on that below).

The flu.

The flu, on the other hand, is much more serious and should be treated by your doctor. There are some very effective antiviral prescription medications, such as Tamiflu®; however, they need to be taken within 48 hours of the first sign of symptoms. So it’s crucial that you bring your child in to see your doctor as soon as you suspect the flu.

The problem is that flu symptoms can be very similar to that of other respiratory illnesses, such as the common cold. So how do you tell the difference? Here are symptoms you should pay attention to:

  • Fever of 103 degrees or more (100 degrees for a child six months and younger)
  • Body aches
  • Fatigue
  • Ear pain

Very young children and infants aren’t able to verbalize how they feel when it comes to body aches and fatigue. However, no one knows your child better than you do, and if you see that he or she is unresponsive or too weak to sit up, those can be signs of the flu.

The common cold.

If your child only has a mild fever (not lasting more than two or three days), runny nose and coughing, then it’s likely a cold that you can treat with home remedies. Over the counter medications are generally not recommended for kids under six years of age, but Tylenol® can be given at any age, and ibuprofen drugs can be given at ages six months and older. Other remedies include:

  • Lots of fluids: water, juice, clear broth
  • Warm lemon water with a teaspoon of honey for children one year or older
  • Bed rest
  • Saline nasal drops and bulb syringe cleaning for infants
  • A humidifier or vaporizer in the bedroom (filled with water only)

You may also find that elevating your child’s head in bed will help with runny nose, but do not use a pillow for infants under one year of age — prop up the entire crib bed slightly instead.

When in doubt.

I admit that it’s tricky to know the difference between a cold and the flu, so that’s why I urge you to always err on the side of caution. Most pediatricians and family physicians can see you on the same day if you call early. You’ll put your mind at ease and ensure the best outcome for your child.

Deborah Kinnamon

Author of this Article

Deborah Kinnamon, MD, is a pediatrician and guest columnist. She is located at Riley Physicians Pediatrics – Mooresville, 820 N. Samuel Moore Parkway, Suite C in Mooresville. She can be reached by calling the office at 317.483.5080.

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