Causes of influenza or flu

Influenza or flu is caused by an influenza virus. There are many different kinds of influenza virus.

Influenza happens most during winter. But from year to year, the flu season varies in how long it lasts and how bad it is – that is, how many children are infected and how sick they get.

Flu symptoms

Flu symptoms in children are usually very similar to the symptoms of a cold, or upper respiratory tract infection.

Symptoms include a runny nose, a sore throat, cough, fever, headache and muscle aches. Your child might be shivering, and also feel very hot or very cold.

Flu might occasionally cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.

Flu can come on very quickly and usually lasts 2-5 days, although the tiredness and cough can last for several weeks.

Flu is usually quite mild in children but can cause complications, which are sometimes very serious.

Flu can be more serious in children with long-term (chronic) medical problems, pregnant women and other adults, especially the elderly.

When to see your doctor about flu symptoms

You should take your child to the GP if your child:

  • can’t or won’t drink fluids
  • vomits frequently
  • complains of an intense headache
  • is pale and sleepy
  • has trouble breathing.

Also visit your doctor if:

  • your child doesn’t show some improvement within 48 hours
  • your child has any of the symptoms listed above and is less than one year old
  • you’re worried.

Flu treatment

There is no cure for flu. There’s also no specific treatment that can make the flu go away more quickly.

All you can do for flu is treat the symptoms and try to make your child more comfortable:

  • Give your child paracetamol in recommended doses for up to 48 hours. This can help if your child has a fever or is in pain (if the fever lasts more than 48 hours, it’s best to see your doctor).
  • Encourage your child to rest.
  • Encourage your child to drink lots of fluid so that he doesn’t get dehydrated. Warm drinks can ease a sore throat and dry mouth.
  • Try saline nasal drops or spray or eucalyptus inhalant to ease a blocked nose.

It’s a good idea for your child to take things easy, but there’s no need for her to stay in bed. Let your child decide how active she wants to be.

Your child probably won’t be hungry. His appetite will come back as he starts to feel better.

You should avoid the following:

  • cough medicines – your child is coughing because her windpipe is irritated or has a lot of mucus, and cough medicines won’t help with either of these issues
  • decongestants (like Benadryl®, Bisolvon®, Demazin®, Dimetapp®, Duro-tuss™, Logicin®, Robitussin® and Sudafed®) – these have side effects such as rapid heart rate, jitteriness and insomnia, and can’t help with flu
  • antibiotics – flu is caused by a virus, so antibiotics won’t help and can even cause stomach upsets and diarrhoea.

There’s no need to stay away from dairy products – they don’t make extra mucus.

There are also several treatments that aren’t necessary. Always ask your doctor if your child really needs a prescription.

Don’t give your child or teenager aspirin or medications containing aspirin (acetyl salicylic acid). Aspirin can make your child susceptible to Reye’s syndrome, a rare but potentially fatal illness. Reye’s syndrome can be associated with any use of aspirin, especially if it’s used for flu or chickenpox. If you’re giving your child any over-the-counter medicines, check with your pharmacist or doctor to make sure they’re aspirin-free.

Flu prevention

The best way to avoid catching the flu is to wash your hands regularly with warm soapy water.

Flu is very contagious and can spread when people who have it cough and sneeze. The virus can also live on hands and objects that have been in contact with a sick person’s mouth or nose. Encourage family members to wash their hands regularly, particularly after coughing and sneezing.

To minimise the chance of spreading your child’s flu to other people, keep your child away from child care, preschool or school while she’s sick.

Vaccines are developed every year to immunise people against common strains of flu virus. If you want your child immunised against flu, talk to your doctor. The flu vaccine is not 100% effective, but it does reduce the chance your child will get sick with flu.

The flu vaccine is safe for all children.

Flu immunisation is especially recommended for children with underlying medical conditions, including asthma. The immunisation is not part of the free National Immunisation Program (NIP) for most healthy children.