Flu symptoms? Where to go, and when

February 27, 2018

Flu season is definitely in full swing…and, many pediatricians’ offices, urgent care clinics and emergency centers (ECs) have been seeing large volumes of children with flu-like symptoms arrive daily. Most children who have the flu will exhibit mild symptoms (such as fever, runny or stuffy nose, sore throat, cough, muscle/body aches, headache, vomiting/diarrhea, decreased appetite, and fatigue/tiredness) and recover in less than two weeks. However, some higher-risk children may be more likely to develop flu-related complications, such as pneumonia, sinus infections, asthma attacks and dehydration, which may lead to a hospital stay or even death. Parents should be aware of where and when to seek medical care for their child.

Who’s at high risk for developing flu-related complications?

  • Children younger than 2
  • Patients (including children) with chronic medical conditions, such as asthma, neurological conditions (i.e., cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, seizure disorders), chronic lung disease, heart disease, blood disorders (i.e., sickle cell disease), endocrine disorders (i.e., diabetes mellitus), kidney and liver disorders, metabolic disorders (i.e., G6PD), and weakened immune systems (i.e., cancer)
  • Pregnant women
  • Adults older than 65

When and how can I care for my child at home? 

Many children with the flu have fever and are tired, less hungry and uncomfortable…but, if they are previously healthy with mild flu-like symptoms and are interactive (awake, babbling/talking, recognizing family, watching TV), drinking fluids and staying hydrated, as well as tolerating fever/pain medications, caring for them at home would be a safe choice.

Fever and pain in children can be safely treated with two medications, acetaminophen and ibuprofen. Because these medications use different active ingredients and mechanisms to treat symptoms, parents can use both acetaminophen and ibuprofen (alone or in combination) to safely treat their child’s fever and pain. It’s important to note, although acetaminophen can safely be used in infants and children of all ages, fever-reducing medications should not be given to babies younger than 2 months of age and ibuprofen should not be given in children younger than 6 months prior to speaking with a pediatrician or health care provider. Also, it is important to remember that over-the-counter cold and cough medications should NOT be used to treat infants and children young than 6 years of age! Research does not support or show that these medications provide any symptomatic relief or improvement in younger children, and have been associated with serious and potentially life-threatening side effects related to their use. Alternative medications and products, such as normal saline (salt water) sprays, suction bulbs/syringes/aspirators and cool mist humidifiers, can all be safely used in young children.

When should I take my child to the pediatrician’s office? 

Children who are at high-risk for developing flu-related complications or have prolonged or worsening, flu-like symptoms should be evaluated by their pediatrician. Anti-viral medications, such as Tamiflu or Relenza, can lessen symptoms, shorten the duration of the illness by one or two days, and prevent flu-like complications and hospitalizations. Although studies show that these anti-viral medications work best when started within two days of getting sick, starting them later, especially in high-risk children and patients, can still be beneficial. 

Is my local urgent care a safe choice? 

Although you should ideally follow up with your child’s pediatrician when they are ill, you pediatrician’s clinic hours and availability may not allow for an immediate, walk-in visit. For those times, urgent care clinics, such as Texas Children’s Urgent Care locations, can provide a safe alternative and are typically equipped to diagnose and treat a variety of common pediatric illnesses and minor injuries. Prior to going to a local urgent care, parents may want to ensure that a pediatrician will be evaluating their child and their health insurance covers the cost of the urgent care visit. 

Is it time to go to the emergency center? 

Knowing when and when not to take a child to an EC can be a difficult and stressful decision for many parents! This time of year, most ECs are extremely busy, and parents may find themselves waiting for long periods of time before seeing a physician or advanced level practitioner. Parents should seek medical care in an EC if their child exhibits severe, flu-like symptoms such as:

  • Difficulty breathing (fast breathing or trouble breathing)
  • Persistent vomiting and not drinking any fluids
  • Dehydration (no tears with crying, dry lips and mouth, no urination in more than eight hours, not waking up or interacting)
  • Poor skin color (pale or bluish skin color)
  • Abnormal or altered behavior
  • Severe pain

Post by:

Katherine Jennifer Leaming-Van Zandt, MD

Dr. Katherine Leaming-Van Zandt is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at BCM and, an attending physician in the emergency centers of Texas Children's Hospital.  She also serves as the Medical Director of the TCH West Campus Emergency Center.  

Dr. Leaming-Van Zandt’s academic interests...

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