The common cold and seasonal flu have similar symptoms -- both are contagious respiratory illnesses -- but there are a few key differences. A cold is generally milder than the flu, and the flu usually comes with a fever, aches and chills. Colds also come on slower, while the flu usually hits hard and fast. In young children, a fever may accompany their cold because their bodies aren't yet accustomed to fighting off infection without raising their body temperature.
By the time you're a parent, you've probably had your fair share of colds and bouts of the flu. According to the CDC, each year up to 20% of the population gets the flu, and the Mayo Clinic cites the common cold as the number one culprit of stay-home-sick-from-school days in children. But although there's not much you can do medically for a cold or even the flu, aside from the vaccine or antiviral treatment in some cases, there are alternative treatments (yes, chicken soup is one!) and prevention techniques you can use to help keep your family cold- and flu-free.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists common cold symptoms as:
Mild body aches or headaches
Flu symptoms include:
Fever (often high)
Runny or stuffy nose
Stomach symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, also can occur but are more common in children than adults
When to Call the Our Office:
If your child is 3 months or younger, call the pediatrician at the first sign of illness. For a cold in a child older than 3 months, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends calling the doctor if:
Nasal mucus persists for longer than ten to fourteen days. If "discharge begins seeping from her eyes as well, it's time to see the doctor. Babies with the eye-nose combo may have both a sinus and an ear infection and likely need antibiotics to treat them."
A cough persists for more than one week
Your child has pain in his ear. This can be tough to discern since signs of ear pain aren't very clear, says Meg Fisher, M.D., the department chair of pediatrics and medical director of the Children's Hospital at Monmouth Medical Center in Long Branch, New Jersey. General irritability and fever can be indicators; tugging on the ear, while widely considered a sign of ear pain, is more likely done out of habit than ear discomfort, says Dr. Fisher.
For diarrhea and vomiting, be sure to offer rehydrating drinks like Pedialyte or Gatorade, and small portions of bland foods like rice, noodles, or toast. Call the pediatrician immediately if there is blood or bile in the vomit, or blood in the diarrhea.
Your child has a high fever, or a recurring fever. A high fever means:
For babies 3 months or younger, 100.4ºF or higher
For babies 3 to 6 months, 101.1ºF or higher
For children older than 6 months, 103ºF or higher
Your child is excessively sleepy, lethargic or cranky
If your child exhibits flu symptoms, call the doctor as early as possible; antiviral medication may help if it is given within the first 48 hours of flu signs.
Both the common cold and seasonal flu are caused by viruses (it's a myth that colds are caused by being out in cold weather). The CDC reports over 200 viruses as the culprits of colds, with the rhinovirus being the most common. There are 3 types of flu strains -- A, B, and C -- though the AAP cites A and B as the ones most likely responsible for most flu bouts.
The viruses that cause colds and the flu are transferred by touching or coming in contact with infected surfaces, or infected droplets emitted from coughs or sneezes. You know the drill: an infected kid wipes his nose with his hand (and, being a kid, doesn't immediately wash or sanitize it), then touches one of the classroom toys; your kid comes along, picks up the toy, then scratches her nose before washing her hands…next thing you know, she's home sick.
Since the common cold and seasonal flu are so well known, you can probably diagnose your child based on the description of the symptoms. Be sure to contact your pediatrician at the first sign of symptoms if your child is younger than 3 months, or if she shows any signs of breathing difficulties, persistent fever, has a cough or runny nose that won't go away, ear pain, lips or nails turning blue, or excessive fatigue or crankiness.
Even though there's no cure for the cold or flu -- and your kid will probably catch a few in a year -- you can help your kid reduce their risk of getting sick. Methods for preventing colds and flu are keeping clean, boosting your kid's immune system, and getting a vaccine for the seasonal flu.
Keeping Germs Away
Hands down, the best way to prevent a cold or the flu is to keep your hands clean! The viruses that cause colds and flu are typically transferred from one's hand to the nose or mouth, where the viruses multiply -- and make you sick. The viruses are sneaky, too; they can make you contagious even before symptoms show. That's why it's so important to make sure to teach your kids to cover the mouth and nose with their armpit if they sneeze or cough, and to wash or sanitize their hands, especially before eating, after using the bathroom, sneezing or coughing, and after they come home from school or play dates.
Boosting Your Child's Immune System
Aside from keeping clean or getting the flu vaccine, having a healthy immune system is your kid's best bet in fighting off a cold or the seasonal flu. Kids can get an immunity boost from practicing basic healthy habits: eating well, staying active and getting enough sleep.
For a healthy diet, we recommend giving kids foods packed with phytonutrients ("phytos" for short). What kinds of foods have phytos? Look for the deepest-colored fruits and veggies you can find: blueberries, tomatoes, spinach, sweet potatoes…the more color in the food, the more phytos - and immune-boosting power- it has. And don't worry about always buying fresh fruits and veggies; canned and frozen varieties are still packed with phyto power (some, like canned tomatoes, have even more than fresh).
Kid won't touch fruits or veggies? A multi-vitamin can supply the vital nutrients. The AAP also recommends a vitamin D supplement for kids up to age 18 to help get the recommended 400 IU per day. Vitamin D, which can promote immune-system activity, is found in foods like eggs, milk, and yogurt, or sunlight exposure.
It's well known that regular exercise is beneficial, but Ray Sahelian, M.D., a family physician and author of The Common Cold Cure, says it can also help prevent catching a cold or the flu. "It's probably the single best way to keep your energy up and your stress level down, which is doubly important during cold and flu season," he says.
Plus, exercising outside will also expose kids to sunlight, which, during the winter months (the height of cold and flu season) is important, for physical and mental health. "Being outdoors in daylight for as little as twenty minutes a day can make a big difference in raising your energy level and preventing the winter blues," says Norman Rosenthal, M.D., director of seasonal studies at the National Institute of Mental Health and author of Winter Blues. Sunlight exposure also ups vitamin D intake, which is part of eating well.
If your child will be outside for an extended period of time, remember to apply sunscreen. However, Dr. Fisher says that it is both appropriate and safe to allow your child to be exposed to some sunlight for getting vitamin D.
There is no cure for the common cold or seasonal flu. You can prevent each by keeping your kids and your home's germ hotspots clean and by boosting your child's immune system, and for the flu, getting your child vaccinated yearly. But that probably won't stop your kid from catching a few colds and having a bout or two with the flu. So how can you treat their sniffles, coughs and fevers?
Over The Counter Medication for Symptoms:
There are medications kids can take to alleviate symptoms, like decongestants, but they are not safe or proven to be effective for children under 6. Plus, the medication won't cure your kid because it doesn't combat the actual virus causing the cold or flu: you'll have to wait for that to pass. Single-ingredient acetaminophen or ibuprofen is approved in children older than 6 months as a fever reducer, but it should not be given to a child who is vomiting or dehydrated. Acetaminophen is approved in children younger than 6 months, but consult our office first. For kids 6 and up, ask your doctor to recommend an over-the-counter cough or cold medicine, and give doses according to directions. A mentholated vapor rub, such as Vicks, can help soothe coughing in kids over 2, but it can irritate airways and increase mucus in kids under two. Do not give your children aspirin as it has been linked with Reye's syndrome, so use caution when giving aspirin to children or teenagers.
There are also several non-medicinal ways to relieve your child's cold and flu symptoms.
Antivirals for the Seasonal Flu:
For seasonal influenza, the CDC lists two types of antivirals that can be effective against seasonal influenza for children. Remember, even if your child is vaccinated against the flu, the flu vaccine is not 100% effective against all strains of the flu. Antivirals are most effective when given within 2 days of being sick.
Oseltamivir (brand name Tamiflu®), an oral medication, is approved to both treat and prevent influenza A and B virus infection in people one year of age and older.
If the liquid form is not available and the child cannot swallow a pill, the CDC states that "children’s doses of Tamiflu® capsules may be opened and mixed with sweetened liquids such as regular or sugar-free chocolate syrup."
Side effects include nausea and vomiting, which can be mitigated if the medication is taken with food.
Zanamivir (brand name Relenza®), an inhaled medication, is approved to treat influenza A and B virus infection in people 7 years and older and to prevent influenza A and B virus infection in people 5 years and older.
Side effects include diarrhea, nausea, sinusitis, nasal signs and symptoms, bronchitis, cough, headache, dizziness, and ear, nose, and throat infections.
The CDC also notes that "zanamivir should not be used in people with underlying respiratory disease, including asthma."
Antivirals are recommended for children younger than 2 years old (that age group has a high risk of hospitalizations from the flu), or children who have moderate to severe influenza. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also advises that people taking either oseltamivir or zanamivir be monitored closely for signs of abnormal behavior.
Here are 4 germ-fighting tips to help keep your kids and home clean:
1. Scrub away germs: It's great to have your kid wash his hands for two rounds of "Happy Birthday", but also make sure he gets his hands good and sudsy, too; friction is what scrubs away the germs. Also keep your child's nails trimmed short -- less space for germs to cling to!
2. Use hand sanitizer when a sink's not around, but read the label carefully: An effective hand sanitizer needs to have at least 60 percent alcohol to kill bugs, says Philip Tierno, Ph.D., an associate professor of microbiology and pathology at New York University.
3. Spot-clean germ hotspots "It's not dirt that you are looking for, it's germs," says Tierno. "Paying attention to the high-traffic areas where germs linger, like countertops, phones, and doorknobs, is more important." This also includes wiping down the cart handle at the grocery store, using your own pen when signing receipts or checks while shopping, and bringing toys if you take your kids to the doctor -- an office full of sick kids have already touched the ones there. (Discover the germiest spots in your home.)
4. Wipes are super convenient, but they can also transfer bacteria from one surface to another. Use each wipe on only one surface, and then toss it.