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Healthy Habits

What You Need to Know about Flu Season this Year

Learn how to protect your child from getting the flu and how to treat your child if they may have caught the flu.
6 min read
December 11, 2020
Amanda Vickers
Certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner
Amanda has focused her career working with children. She has held positions in pediatric ICU and pediatric neurosurgery and endocrinology.

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Everyone loves the bright colors of autumn leaves, snowflakes drifting from the sky, and the excitement of upcoming holidays. This time of year also signals the beginning of flu season. Although every year is a little different, flu season usually starts in the late fall and lasts through the early spring. The peak of flu season is generally between December and February. Throughout these months, many parents have questions about protecting their child from getting the flu and treating their child if they may have caught the flu.

The flu shot is free with most insurance plans and is easy to get. This is the best way to protect all members of your family over 6 months old. Learn more about this below.

What is the flu, and how do people catch it?
The word flu is short for influenza. This is because the flu is caused by a type of infection called the influenza virus. The flu is contagious and spreads when healthy people breathe in tiny droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks. The virus can also land on hard surfaces and spreads when a person touches the surface and then touches their eyes, nose, or mouth.

Is the flu different from the COVID-19 (coronavirus)?
Yes, the flu is different from the other virus we are hearing about in the news daily, the coronavirus, COVID-19. Flu and COVID-19 are caused by different viruses and may have similar symptoms. The only way to know whether someone has the flu or COVID-19 is by getting a test. These tests are fast and are available at no cost during the current pandemic on most insurance plans. If someone in your family has flu symptoms, check with your doctor about getting a COVID-19 test. You can check here to find local testing sites.

What are the most common flu symptoms?
When a child has the flu, the symptoms usually come suddenly (about 1-3 days after being exposed). Children may have a fever, and younger children may have an especially high fever. Children may also feel very tired and experience headaches, chills, body aches, vomiting, and diarrhea. More mild symptoms may include a cough, a runny nose, and a sore throat.

What if my child has the flu?
Most children with the flu fully recover within two weeks. You should encourage your child to rest and drink plenty of fluids. If school is in session, check with your school about their policy for when your child can return to school after having flu symptoms.

You can also treat your child’s discomfort with medicine. For children over six months, Acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin/Advil) can be given to help with fever, headaches, or pain. Read medicine labels carefully and ask your doctor if you need help picking the right medicine or the correct dose of medicine. If your school has access to Hazel at Home, you can talk to a Hazel doctor quickly and easily.

Antibiotics do not help with the flu. Antibiotics are used to treat different types of illnesses that are caused by bacteria. Since the flu is caused by a virus (not a bacteria), antibiotics will not do anything to help with the flu.

Complications from the flu:
If your child has any of the following symptoms, call 911 or take them to the nearest emergency room immediately – do not wait for an appointment:

  • Trouble breathing – you see their stomach suck in as they try to breathe, and their chest is expanding and contracting / visibly working to suck in air.  

  • A very high fever or a fever that lasts more than five days

  • A blue tint to their lips

Some children can have serious complications from the flu, especially if they have certain health conditions. If you are worried that your child has the flu, and they have any of the following existing conditions, contact your pediatrician right away.

  • Lung disease (such as asthma)

  • Heart disease (such as congenital heart disease)

  • Cancer or weak immune system conditions

  • Neuromuscular disease (such as muscular dystrophy)

  • Diabetes, sickle cell disease, kidney disease, or liver disease

  • Diseases needing long-term aspirin therapy

  • Pregnancy or severe obesity

  • Any time you are concerned about their health

Healthy children under two years old are also considered high-risk for complications.

How can I prevent my child from getting the flu?

Get a Flu Vaccine
The American Academy of Pediatrics says this year is more important than ever to make sure children are vaccinated against the flu. The flu vaccine is the number one way to protect your family from getting the flu. Everyone over six months old should be vaccinated for the flu every year starting in the fall. It is never too late to get the flu vaccine.

How to get the vaccine:
The flu vaccine can be either a shot or a nasal spray. You can take your family to get vaccinated at their doctor’s office or a local pharmacy like CVS, Walgreens, or Target. Many pharmacies allow you to book an appointment online, by phone, or on a walk-in basis. Just be sure to check the facility’s age requirements for children in your state, and remember to share the pharmacy document with your pediatrician.  ​

The flu shot is free with most insurance plans, including Medicaid. If you have questions or concerns about the flu vaccine, please contact your child’s primary care provider to get the most accurate and up-to-date information.  

Antiviral medicine (such as Tamiflu)
Sometimes doctors prescribe antiviral medicine (such as Tamiflu) to treat the flu. This medicine only works when it is taken within 48 hours of when symptoms start. If this type of medication is started after already being sick for more than 48 hours, it is not helpful.

If a child has severe flu symptoms or is considered high-risk (see the list above), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends treating children with antiviral medicine. Antiviral medicine may reduce the amount of time your child is sick by 1 to 1.5 days. It reduces the flu symptoms, but it does not make them go away. Your child may also vomit as a side effect. (About 10% of kids will experience vomiting while taking Tamiflu.) Most healthy children with the flu do not need antiviral medicine like Tamiflu, and the AAP does not recommend giving children Tamiflu if the child has mild symptoms.

Everyday actions to prevent the spread of germs:

Stay away from sick people
Because the flu is contagious, it is best to avoid close contact with anyone who is sick. If your child has the flu, do not send them to school, and try to keep them away from members of your household and other children.

Cover your mouth and nose
Remind your children to cough or sneeze into a tissue or the inside of their elbow. This can prevent others from getting sick from droplets in the air and unclean hands.

Wash, wash, wash your hands
Washing your hands is one of the easiest ways to stop germs from spreading from person to person. Clean hands can also protect the spread of germs when a person touches their eyes, nose, or mouth. Encourage your family to wash their hands frequently with water and soap for at least twenty seconds (Hum the song Happy Birthday twice).

Keep surfaces clean
Wipe down and disinfect surfaces that are touched frequently. This is especially important if someone in your home is sick.

What if I have more questions?
You can get more information online through the American Academy of Pediatrics or contact your child’s doctor. If you don’t have a pediatrician and your school has access to Hazel at Home, you can ask us. To learn more about this topic, or ask questions about other health concerns, be sure to join our weekly Ask Doctor webinars every Wednesday at 3 PST. Register here.

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