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Flu season is upon us — and this year, so is COVID-19. If your child is sick, here’s a pediatrician’s advice on what to do.

Your child has a sore throat, cough and a fever. Could it be the flu? A cold? Maybe COVID-19? Don’t panic — we’re here to help.

“All three of these illnesses are caused by viruses that attack the respiratory tract,” says Nancy Grauso-Eby, DO, pediatrician at Geisinger Shamokin Area Community Hospital. “And they cause similar symptoms, so it can be hard to tell the difference between them without getting your child tested.”

It’s completely normal to feel nervous when illness hits close to home, but most cases of these illnesses in children are mild and can be treated at home.

Spotting the symptoms: Cold, flu or COVID-19?

Cold symptoms in children are typically mild and include a scratchy throat, runny or stuffy nose and sneezing.

Flu symptoms can be mild too, but typically, kids tend to feel worse than with a cold. “When a child has the flu, they may have a fever, chills and body aches that come on suddenly,” says Dr. Grauso-Eby. “They may also feel very tired, have a decrease in appetite and can experience symptoms like nausea or vomiting.”

COVID-19 symptoms in kids can range from mild (like those of a cold) to more severe, flu-like symptoms. One symptom that may indicate COVID-19 is loss of taste or smell. “If you’re concerned that your child may have COVID-19, or may have been exposed to the virus, it’s best to contact their pediatrician for advice,” says Dr. Grauso-Eby.

What to do next

If your child is fatigued or exhausted with persistent body aches on top of cold-like symptoms such as coughing, headaches and a high fever, they likely have more than a common cold.

“A call or message to your pediatrician’s office can help confirm what you’re dealing with,” says Dr. Grauso-Eby.

Your doctor will usually have some advice for at-home treatments and over-the-counter medications to try, but they may also request that you come into the office for a full evaluation — or testing, if necessary.

While they have symptoms, keep your child home from school and other activities. This is critical to avoid spreading the illness and let their body rest, giving the immune system a chance to do its work.
“Good hygiene is also important, especially in your home,” says Dr. Grauso-Eby. “Be sure to clean or disinfect high-touch surfaces in your home such as doorknobs, light switches, handles and faucets to help decrease the spread of germs.”

Treating your child at home

After contacting your child’s pediatrician on next steps, be sure to follow their recommendations for treatment.

First, make sure your child is staying hydrated. “They may not have much of an appetite,” says Dr. Grauso-Eby. “This is okay as long as they’re drinking and urinating every 6 to 8 hours.”

Over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help treat body aches and fever, while a humidifier or vaporizer can help ease congestion or coughing.

However, “Over-the-counter cough and cold medications aren’t recommended for children under the age of 6, so be sure consult your pediatrician’s office before giving medications,” she adds.

It's also a good idea to:

  • Wash hands frequently for at least 20 seconds with soap and water.
  • Avoid close contact with those who are sick in your household, when possible.
  • Encourage your child to cover their coughs and sneezes (cough and sneeze into the crook of their elbow).

When to call your doctor

If your child has asthma or another chronic condition and you suspect the flu or COVID-19, call your child’s doctor right away. “They may want to get your child tested or start medication for the flu to shorten their illness or lessen their symptoms,” says Dr. Grauso-Eby.

In most cases, your child’s illness will pass on its own in 1 to 2 weeks. However, if they continue to have symptoms after 2 weeks, get in touch with their doctor. “Your child’s pediatrician may want to do some tests to rule out additional illnesses, like strep throat or pneumonia,” says Dr. Grauso-Eby.

If your child’s symptoms worsen or if they have any of the below symptoms, call your pediatrician or seek medical care right away:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • High fever (over 102° F)
  • Vomiting
  • Wheezing
  • Convulsions
  • Bluish in the lips or face

“Your child’s pediatrician can assess their symptoms and provide advanced treatment options, if necessary,” says Dr. Grauso-Eby. “Don’t hesitate to contact them with your concerns or questions.”

Protecting your child this cold and flu season

You can take steps to keep your child and yourself from catching a cold, the flu or COVID-19. Always wear a mask in public (for children age 2 and up), wash your hands often and avoid contact with sick people.

“Remember, the best way to prevent the flu is by getting a flu shot every year,” says Dr. Grauso-Eby. “And it’s especially important this year with COVID-19. The symptoms are similar and having both viruses at the same time is possible.”

It’s not too late to get a flu shot. Schedule an appointment with your child’s pediatrician or ask for a flu shot at their next appointment.

And if you or your child do become sick, please stay home to protect others.

Next steps:
Request an appointment with Nancy Grauso-Eby, DO
Find a pediatrician near you
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