Is It a Cold or the Flu?

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Parents

Your child is sent home from school with a sore throat, cough, and high fever — could it be the flu that's been going around? Or just a common cold?

Although the flu (or influenza) usually causes symptoms that make someone feel worse than symptoms associated with a common cold, it's not always easy to tell the difference between the two.

Symptoms Guide

The answers to these questions can help determine whether a child is fighting the flu or combating a cold:

Flu vs. Colds: A Guide to Symptoms

QuestionsFluCold
Was the onset of illness …sudden?slow?
Does your child have a …high fever?no (or mild) fever?
Is your child's exhaustion level …severe?mild?
Is your child's head …achy?headache-free?
Is your child's appetite …decreased?normal?
Are your child's muscles …achy?fine?
Does your child have …chills?no chills?

If most of your answers fell into the first category, chances are that your child has the flu. If your answers were usually in the second category, it's most likely a cold.

But don't be too quick to brush off your child's illness as just another cold. The important thing to remember is that flu symptoms can vary from child to child (and they can change as the illness progresses), so if you suspect the flu, call the doctor. Even doctors often need a test to tell them for sure if a person has the flu or not since the symptoms can be so similar!

Some bacterial diseases, like strep throat or pneumonia, also can look like the flu or a cold. It's important to get medical attention immediately if your child seems to be getting worse, is having any trouble breathing, has a high fever, has a bad headache, has a sore throat, or seems confused.

While even healthy kids can have complications of the flu, kids with certain medical conditions are at more of a risk. If you think your kid might have the flu, contact your doctor.

Treatment

Some kids with chronic medical conditions may become sicker with the flu and need to be hospitalized, and flu in an infant also can be dangerous. For severely ill kids or those with other special circumstances, doctors may prescribe an antiviral medicine that can ease flu symptoms, but only if it's given within 48 hours of the onset of the flu.

Most of the time, you can care for your child by offering plenty of fluids, rest, and extra comfort.

And if the doctor says it's not the flu? Ask whether your child should get a flu shot.

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: February 2013
Originally reviewed by: Iman Sharif, MD



Related Resources

OrganizationAmerican Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) The AAP is committed to the health and well-being of infants, adolescents, and young adults. The website offers news articles and tips on health for families.
Web SiteInfluenza Website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) The CDC's site has up-to-date information on flu outbreaks, immunizations, symptoms, prevention, and more.


Related Articles

Common Cold Instruction Sheet Kids can get up to eight colds a year - or more. The common cold sends more kids to the doctor than any other illness.
Flu Instruction Sheet Sometimes mistaken for the common cold, the flu (influenza) causes more symptoms and can sometimes cause serious illness. Fortunately, most kids who get the flu can get over the infection without any problems.
Tips for Treating the Flu Here are some quick tips for helping your child get over the flu.
Is the Flu Vaccine a Good Idea for Your Family? The flu itself generally isn't dangerous, but its complications can be. That's why it's important for you and your doctor to determine whether your family can and should get the flu vaccine.
Flu Center Learn all about protecting your family from the flu and what to do if your child gets flu-like symptoms.
Common Cold With kids getting up to eight colds a year, this contagious viral infection is the most common infectious disease in the United States and the top reason kids visit the doctor and miss school.
Influenza (Flu) Flu symptoms tend to develop quickly and are usually more severe than the typical sneezing and stuffiness of a cold. Yearly vaccination is the best protection against the flu.




Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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