About influenza or flu
Influenza or flu is caused by a virus. There are many different types of influenza viruses. The most common are types A and B.
Influenza happens most often during winter. Occasionally, the virus becomes more widespread and causes an ‘outbreak’. When an outbreak happens, more people than usual get the flu.
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 an infected person’s mouth or nose.
Flu symptoms in children are usually very similar to cold symptoms.
Flu 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. The tiredness and cough can last for several weeks.
When people say they have the flu, they usually have a cold. It’s hard to tell the symptoms apart. People with flu might have more muscle pain and chills.
Flu is usually quite mild in children, but it can cause complications. These complications can sometimes be very serious.
The most common flu complication is pneumonia. A child with pneumonia will look unwell and might breathe faster and harder than normal. A very small number of children develop encephalitis or myocarditis.
Flu can be more serious in children with chronic health conditions or weakened immune systems, pregnant women and elderly people.
For children with asthma, flu can trigger symptoms or a severe asthma attack. Every child with asthma should have a treatment and management plan.
Medical help: when to get it for children with flu
You should take your child to the GP if your child has flu and:
- can’t or won’t drink fluids
- vomits frequently
- doesn’t show some improvement within 48 hours.
You should call an ambulance on 000 or go to your nearest hospital emergency department straight away if your child has flu and:
- has an intense headache
- is pale and sleepy
- is breathing faster or harder than normal
- seems very unwell.
You know your child best. If your child seems unwell, trust your instincts and seek urgent medical attention.
There’s no specific treatment that can make the flu go away more quickly. But you can make your child more comfortable. Here are some things you can do:
- Give your child paracetamol or ibuprofen as needed in recommended doses. This can help if your child is in pain or has a fever that’s making them uncomfortable.
- Encourage your child to drink plenty of fluids so that they don’t get dehydrated. Warm drinks can ease a sore throat and dry mouth.
- It’s a good idea for your child to take things easy, but there’s no need for them to stay in bed. Let your child decide how active they want to be.
- Don’t force your child to eat. Your child probably won’t be hungry, but their appetite will improve as they start to feel better.
You should avoid the following:
- Cough medicines – your child is coughing because their 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 like rapid heart rate, jitteriness and insomnia, and they won’t help with flu.
- Antibiotics – flu is caused by a virus, so antibiotics won’t help and can even cause stomach upsets and diarrhoea.
Some children with severe flu symptoms might need to be admitted to hospital and get anti-viral medicine to help them get better more quickly.
Don’t give aspirin to children under 12 years unless it’s prescribed by a doctor. Aspirin can make your child susceptible to Reye’s syndrome, a rare but potentially deadly illness. Reye’s syndrome is especially a risk if aspirin is used for flu. If you’re giving your child any over-the-counter medicines, check with your pharmacist or doctor to make sure these have no aspirin.
The best way to avoid catching the flu is to wash your hands regularly with warm soapy water. Also try to keep your hands away from your eyes, nose and mouth.
Encourage family members to cover their mouths with a tissue, sleeve or elbow when coughing. Also encourage everyone to wash their hands 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 they’re sick.
Flu immunisation is safe and recommended for all children over 6 months. It reduces the chance your child will get sick with flu.
Flu immunisation is part of the National Immunisation Program (NIP) for most healthy children under 5, which means that it’s free for these children.
Flu immunisation is particularly important for high-risk children. This includes children under the age of 5 or children who have a chronic medical condition like a heart or lung disease.
If you want your child immunised against flu, talk to your GP.
You and your child need to get new flu immunisations each season. The viruses that cause flu change frequently, which is why you can get the flu many times. Each flu season new flu vaccines are developed to protect you and your child.