“My child has a fever.”
“She also has a stuffy/runny nose, sore throat, and cough. Her head hurts and she isn’t eating well. Do you think she has the flu?” These symptoms may be seen with colds, sinus infections, strep throat, and flu. How do you tell which illness your child is most likely to have?
“Is it a cold?”
If your child has a stuffy nose, runny nose, and cough, but doesn’t seem too sick, he is likely suffering from the common cold. Common colds can cause fever too but usually the child doesn’t usually seem horribly ill. There isn’t much pediatric care providers can do for common colds so you’re best bet is to stay home and give your child some extra TLC until the fever is gone and they can return to school or daycare.
“…. or a sinus infection?”
Sinus infections also cause a stuffy nose, runny nose, and cough but her symptoms are more severe or last longer. She may also have bad breath. It gets tricky when early in the course of a viral illness when your head gets full and you feel headachy but it typically takes 10 days or more before a sinus infection occurs. Bacteria need time to invade the junky mucus and grow so the first few days of symptoms are due to the virus. If there is a stretch where your child is feeling better and then the headache and fullness come back, a sinus infection may be the cause.
“… or strep throat?”
If he complains of a severe sore throat and fever, the diagnosis could be strep. He may also have a headache, stomach ache, occasional vomiting and/or rash if strep is the cause. His symptoms may range from very mild to severe which makes this diagnosis tricky. Cough almost never accompanies strep throat so if your child has a lot of coughing, strep isn’t likely but a virus is. We can’t treat a virus of course but sometimes we check for strep just to be sure since we can use antibiotics for strep throat and the improvement in symptoms is amazing!
“… or the flu?”
Influenza (respiratory flu) usually causes a high fever, runny nose, and cough. Her symptoms come on suddenly. She feels miserable and may complain of body aches. Younger children may also have vomiting and diarrhea. This is an illness where your child looks sicker than you’ve ever seen them. They are truly miserable with extreme fatigue and ‘sick eyes’ as our moms used to say.
“He’s got the flu? What do I do?”
If your child has caught the flu, rest, fluids, and fever reducers as needed will help her to feel better and allow her body to recover. High-risk or very ill children should be seen and tested for influenza. Tamiflu is available to treat these patients if influenza is diagnosed within the first 48 hours of symptoms. It may make symptoms less severe and shorten the illness by a day or so. Tamiflu has its own side effects of course so we try to use it judiciously.
“What can I do to keep him from getting the flu?”
A yearly flu vaccine is our best weapon to prevent flu due to the strains included in the vaccine. It is still possible to get the flu from a strain that is not in the vaccine or a less severe version of influenza even from one of the strains covered in the vaccine. Although not perfect, the vaccine will reduce severity of illness and need for hospitalization if your child does get influenza. The flu vaccine is recommended for persons aged six months or older. It’s very important for high-risk children with chronic illnesses such as asthma, diabetes, and sickle cell disease to get the flu vaccine. Once flu season has started, wash hands frequently and “cover your cough (cough into your elbow or a tissue)” to lessen the chance of catching the flu.
Stay healthy this cold and flu season, and if you can’t you can at least have some idea of what you’ve got and what we can treat and what we can’t!