Is It a Cold or the Flu? How to Know & How to Treat?

Cold and flu symptoms are similar, so it's easy to get mixed up about which one you are dealing with, particularly in the early stages of an illness. When your child wakes up one morning and isn't feeling well, how do you tell if it is a cold or the flu?

The Common Cold

A cold usually starts with a sore throat. A stuffy, runny nose will follow that and usually a mild to moderate cough. The mucus will become thicker and darker as the child gets over the cold. Children are more likely to develop a mild fever when they have a cold. The biggest danger from a cold is that it can sometimes lead to a bacterial infection (usually in the sinuses or the ears). This usually happens when the cold symptoms last longer than a week. A bacterial infection can be painful and will require antibiotics.

Ensure that your child gets plenty of rest. To relieve symptoms and bring down any fever, children's ibuprofen or acetaminophen can be given to them according to their age and weight. Doctors no longer recommend OTC cold medicines for kids, as they carry too many risks. Keep them warm and well-hydrated, and a dehumidifier can help relieve the stuffiness.

Researchers believe a cold is contagious for two to three days before any symptoms show up. They also believe that it can be contagious for up to two weeks. However, no one recommends keeping a child out of school for two weeks, especially when the symptoms are mild. One or two days' absence is typical though, unfortunately, may lead to spreading the illness to classmates.

The Flu

The flu is more serious than a common cold and the symptoms come on much faster. Symptoms include headache, a dry cough, weariness, a runny nose, and aches and pains throughout the body. It's not uncommon for a child with the flu to experience vomiting and diarrhea. The flu can lead to more serious complications like pneumonia.

Treatment will include lots of fluids and possibly a prescription antiviral medication (which is different from an antibiotic). A dehumidifier in your child's room is also helpful. Monitor your child's temperature; if it climbs too high (104 degrees F or higher), you'll need to take your child to the doctor or emergency room. Keep physical activities to a minimum (no running or jumping) so they can get plenty of bed rest.

Since it is a more serious illness, your child will be contagious for a longer period of time and will need a few more days off from school. While an adult can sometimes shake the flu off in about five days, it can take a child up to seven days or sometimes longer to recover. They should be kept out of school to rest and heal for that entire time. People are contagious one day before symptoms develop and for roughly seven days or longer after becoming sick. Some people can be infected with the flu virus but have no symptoms. During this time, those people (kids and adults) may spread the virus to others.

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