It’s a question that puzzles most parents of toddlers: how do you tell if your child has the flu or just a fever? Find out how to distinguish signs of the flu and the best way to protect your child from it.
The flu is a viral infection of the nose, throat and lungs, which can cause serious complications in children under five. Flu in toddlers aged two or under, and flu in babies, can be especially dangerous. A fever is one common flu symptom (although it’s not always present), however, a fever is a sign that the body is fighting infection, and can be a symptom of a number of other childhood illnesses. In children under five, a temperature of 38℃ (100.4℉) or above is classed as a fever.
If your child has a fever or any other flu symptoms, it’s important to get them checked by a doctor immediately. Here’s what to look out for:
Child flu symptoms
Flu symptoms in babies can be difficult to detect, as obviously your young baby can’t tell you how they’re feeling. Even a toddler who’s talking well might find it difficult to communicate their symptoms to you. A digital thermometer is useful for monitoring your child’s temperature at home, but never delay seeking medical advice if you see the following flu symptoms in toddler or baby:
- Fever (temp over 38℃)
- Feeling cold
- Body shakes
- Dry cough
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Ear pain
- Refusing drinks or difficulty drinking
- Dehydration (check for wet nappies)
- Occasionally, vomiting and/or diarrhea can also be symptoms of flu in toddlers or babies.
Serious flu symptoms in children
If your child presents any of the following symptoms, you’re advised to call for emergency services immediately:
- Fast breathing
- Difficulty breathing
- Severe or persistent vomiting
- So irritable they don’t want to be held
- Returning flu-like symptoms with a fever and worsened cough
Children that have existing conditions such as heart disease, lung disease, diabetes or asthma are also at increased risk of complications.
Treatment and protection
The best way to protect your child from the flu is get them vaccinated in September before the winter flu season begins. The World Health Organization recommends an annual vaccination for children over six months old.
Practicing good hygiene can also lessen the risk of your child picking up the flu virus. Wash hands often with soap and warm water, and use hand sanitizers.
If you do recognize any of the symptoms of flu in your baby or toddler, your first stop should be your doctor’s clinic (or, in the case of serious flu symptoms, the hospital).
Your doctor will be able to give you specific advice on what treatment your toddler or baby needs. However, here are some suggestions for making them feel more comfortable:
- Make sure your child is kept comfortable and gets as much rest as possible.
- Ensure that they drink enough fluids – suggestions for an older baby or toddler could include water or warm soup alongside their usual breastmilk or formula milk feeds – and offer small, nutritious meals. Ensure any food or drink you give to your child is age-appropriate, and keep an eye on them for any signs of allergic reactions.
- Consult with your doctor about possible medication options.
Fever in children
In children under five, a temperature of 38℃ (100.4℉) or above is classed as a fever. Fever in this age group is very common, with more than 60% of parents with children between the ages of six months and five years saying that their child has had at least one. However, it’s still important to get your doctor’s advice to determine the cause.
Signs of a fever include:
- Feeling hot
- Feeling clammy or sweaty
- Flushed cheeks
You can take your child’s temperature yourself with a digital thermometer. The NHS recommends using it in the armpit.
Treating a fever
If your child has a fever, but your doctor has ruled out the flu or other serious causes, there should be no need to worry. Keep your child comfortable by:
- Ensuring that they drink enough fluids.
- Taking your doctor’s advice on appropriate medication.
While it’s often confused with minor illnesses like coughs and colds, the flu in infants and toddlers can be very dangerous. Ensure that a fever and any other flu-like symptoms are checked as soon as possible by a doctor and don’t forget to get your child vaccinated every year before the dreaded flu season starts.