It’s occasionally hard to distinguish between the symptoms of a common cold and influenza, but the latter is a more severe, highly contagious viral disease. Find out more about how to spot it and treat it.

Influenza, which is more commonly known as the flu, is a highly contagious infection of the respiratory tract. Caused by a virus, the flu affects all age groups, although children tend to get it more often than adults. Flu outbreaks run in a seasonal pattern, with most cases occurring in the cooler winter months. If your child has the flu, they can feel quite poorly and become irritable. As it is caused by a virus, there is no cure for the flu; all that can be done is relief of the symptoms.

Signs and Symptoms

The flu is often confused with the common cold, but flu symptoms are usually more severe than the typical sore throat, runny nose and sneezing of a cold. Flu symptom usually begin about 2 days after exposure to the virus and can include:

  • Fever
  • Muscle aches
  • Chills (being cold one minute and hot the next)
  • Headache
  • Malaise
  • Weakness and lethargy
  • Dizziness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose and congestion
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Earache

After 5 days, the fever and other symptoms have usually disappeared. There may be a residual cough and weakness that continues for a few more days. All symptoms have usually disappeared within two weeks.

Is it serious?

Most cases of flu pass without any complications. However, it’s still important to take the condition seriously because it can lead to life-threatening complications, such as pneumonia, particularly in infants, older people and those with underlying health problems. Occasionally there will be an outbreak of a strain of flu that spreads on a worldwide scale and infects a large proportion of the human population. This is known as a pandemic. Pandemics occur irregularly but when they do, they can cause a large number of deaths. The most recent flu pandemic occurred in 2009.

How contagious is it?

The flu is highly contagious and spread by airborne droplets that contain the virus. These droplets are coughed or sneezed out by those who are infected, so coughing and sneezing in confined public spaces means that there is a good chance of infecting others in the same proximity. People who are infected with the flu virus are contagious from a day before they start to feel unwell until their symptoms have ended.

The flu vaccine

A routine annual influenza vaccination is available and recommended for everyone 6 months old and older. The vaccine is offered during the ‘flu season’ months and changes each year, as the flu virus has a high mutation rate, meaning that the vaccine has to be updated each year to include the most current strains of the virus. It is estimated that vaccination reduces the average person’s chances of catching the flu by up to 80%. Those that do still become infected tend to experience fewer and milder symptoms. The vaccines are available in a nasal spray and in an injection form. However, the vaccine isn’t suitable for everyone. Those who shouldn’t receive it include:

  • Infants under 6 months
  • Anyone who is severely allergic to eggs and egg products.
  • Anyone who’s previously ever had a severe reaction to a flu vaccination
  • Anyone with Guillain-Barré syndrome (a rare immune system and nerve disorder)


Healthy children who catch the flu rarely require specific medical treatment, with symptom relief being the main focus. Some children with chronic medical conditions, such as asthma and diabetes or children under 2 years old might become more ill with the flu and may have a greater risk of complications. Occasionally a child with flu will need to be treated in hospital, where respiratory support and intravenous medication can be safely administered. For a severely ill child, or one who is a special case because of a pre-existing condition, a doctor may prescribe an antiviral medicine. This can decrease the duration of the illness by 1-2 days and prevent potential complications. However, it needs to be administered within 48 hours of the onset of the illness to be effective. Healthy children with the flu will not need to take an antiviral medication. However, the following advice might help in combating the worst effects of the disease:

  • Have your child drink lots of fluids to prevent dehydration, as dehydration can easily develop with a fever
  • Encourage rest and sleep
  • Give your child warm baths, as these can soothe chills, aches and pains
  • Make them comfortable in easily removable clothes, such as cotton pants and a robe, as chills can make them cold one minute and hot the next

When should I call the doctor?

In the vast majority of cases, flu goes in one or two weeks with no complications. However, you should call your doctor if you notice the following with your child:

  • A high fever (above 37.8 degrees Centigrade [100 degrees Fahrenheit])
  • A fever with a rash
  • Difficulty with breathing or rapid, shallow breathing
  • A bluish skin colour
  • Is not drinking fluids
  • Passing only small amounts of urine
  • Becomes drowsy and lethargic
  • Appears confused

Preventing the spread of flu

Flu is a highly communicable disease which is very difficult to prevent from spreading. Avoiding crowds in public places is one way of minimising your child’s risk, but this can be difficult to do in reality. The best way to help prevent flu from spreading is to follow basic hygiene rules, such as the ones listed below:

  • Make sure your child washes their hands thoroughly and frequently with soap, especially after using the bathroom, after coughing or sneezing and before eating.
  • Encourage them to cover their mouths and noses with their arm and not their hands when coughing and sneezing
  • When your child is using tissues, make sure that they are disposed of immediately
  • Ensure all cups and utensils are washed in detergent and thoroughly dried

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