Common Viruses: Keeping Your Kid Healthy

Cold and flu are two of the most common childhood illnesses. Below you can find more information about two of the most common viruses: the common cold and influenza (flu) along with other helpful tips.

Common Cold

The common cold is usually a mild illness but can still cause plenty of discomfort. Symptoms can include:

  • Runny, stuffy nose
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion
  • Muscle aches
  • Tiredness

Colds typically go away on their own within about a week, and you are likely most contagious within the first few days of your symptoms. If your child’s cold spans longer than one week, you should contact their pediatrician.

Influenza (Flu)

Though many of the symptoms of influenza (flu) are similar to that of the common cold, catching the flu can occasionally lead to more serious complications, including pneumonia.

Symptoms of the flu include:

  • A fever of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, sometimes with shaking chills (if the child’s fever is under 100 degrees Fahrenheit, or she has congestion/runny nose alone, it could be the common cold).
  • Tiredness.
  • Muscle aches.
  • Headache/sore throat in older children.
  • Cough.
  • Gastrointestinal problems, including vomiting and diarrhea, are signs in children, not adults.
  • Congestion.
  • Runny nose.

When to Call the Doctor

"Call your doctor if you notice difficulty breathing, dehydration, fever lasting longer than three days, lethargy, or any other symptom that concerns you,” says Evelyn Reis, MD, a pediatrician at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. “But for most children with cold or flu, just focus on relieving symptoms.”

You should first consult your child’s pediatrician, who can prescribe care. They will recommend plenty of rest, fluids, and non-aspirin comfort medicine like acetaminophen or ibuprofen (NOT aspirin) to reduce a fever. Always follow package instructions for medications. In most cases, the flu will run its course in three or four days.

However, you should take your child to the Emergency Room if:

  • They have a high fever you cannot control.
  • They are dehydrated from vomiting and/or diarrhea.
  • They cannot take fluids.
  • Their breathing is rapid or they’re having a difficult time breathing.
  • They seem confused or are not responding to you in a normal way.

Antibiotic Use

When it comes to colds and flu, does your child need chicken soup? Most likely yes. But when it comes to antibiotics, probably not.

“Colds and flu are caused by viruses, and antibiotics don’t work against viruses,” says Evelyn Reis, MD, a pediatrician at UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. “Using antibiotics when they’re not necessary can reduce their effectiveness in your child when they are needed.”

Best Practices to Prevent Your Child From Getting Sick

Viruses are spread mainly spread from person to person via touch or in respiratory droplets propelled by coughs and sneezes from an infected person to the mouth or nose of another person. So encouraging good hand hygiene is important and effective in preventing your child from getting sick and spreading viruses to others.

Teach your kids to rub their hands together thoroughly with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds. That is the amount of time it takes to recite the alphabet or to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice. Be sure that they reach every surface of their hands and fingernails.

Encourage children to always wash their hands after being in public or in contact with anyone with a cold or flu. Clean – frequently – commonly touched surfaces (doorknobs, refrigerator handles, phones, water faucets, etc.), especially if someone in the house has a cold or flu.

Teach your child to cough or sneeze into a tissue and then throw the tissue away, or in the inside of his or her elbow (the “crook” of your arm). Avoid close contact (holding, kissing) between infants and anyone who has a cold or flu and do not share anything that goes into the mouth, such as drinking cups and straws.

Vaccinations

A flu vaccine is available and should be given to high-risk children with underlying chronic conditions such as:

  • Heart disease.
  • Lung conditions, such as asthma and cystic fibrosis.
  • Immune deficiencies or those taking medicines that affect the immune system.
  • Kidney disease.
  • Metabolic disease such as diabetes.
  • Sickle cell disease.
  • Any child on long-term aspirin medication.
  • Healthy children 6 to 23 months of age.
  • Household contacts of children with any of the above conditions.

Resources

The UPMC Healthbeat blog features several articles by pediatric experts to learn more about keeping children safe from common viruses, including: