How can you tell when a child has a potentially dangerous influenza infection as opposed to a routine cold (viral upper respiratory infection)? You’d think that question would be an easy one to answer, but I have to confess that even experienced pediatricians are guessing much of the time. You’d think, “If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.” But since influenza is just one of many viruses that cause upper respiratory symptoms in kids, it’s more like, “It walks like a duck and talks like a duck, but is it an American widgeon or a northern shoveler?”
Treatments for influenza only work when they’re given early, in the first 48 hours of illness. For this reason, it’s important for parents to seek care as soon as they suspect a child has influenza.
Here are some clues on how to tell if it’s a flu vs cold:
Many pediatric offices, urgent care centers, and emergency departments are equipped with rapid influenza tests. These tests usually require using a thin swab to obtain a mucus sample from deep in the child’s nose. Many of the tests distinguish between the two most common strains of influenza, A and B. Even these tests, however, are far from perfect. Flu viruses are constantly changing, and the tests may turn positive in only 50% to 70% of people who actually have influenza.
Most importantly, make sure that your children all start the flu season with vaccines. While antiviral medicines for influenza are often only marginally effective, flu vaccine has the power to dramatically cut your child’s risk of missing school, being hospitalized, or winding up in the intensive care unit. You’ll feel a lot better knowing that your child is likely to get through flu season feeling…ducky.
Dr. Hill is a paid spokesman for PediaCare®, a brand of Prestige Brands, Inc. or its affiliate (Prestige). The content of his posts represents his own thoughts and opinions. Such content is merely informational and is not intended as medical advice. If readers require medical advice or have particular medical needs for themselves or anyone else, they should consult a doctor or other appropriate medical professional.