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Protect Your Child from the Flu

Health care provider giving boy an injection. Mother holding baby in background.

Updated for the 2020-2021 flu season

The flu (influenza) is caused by a virus that’s easy to spread, especially among kids in school or daycare. A child’s immune system is not as well developed as an adult’s. This means the flu can make children very sick. Also, children in daycare or school are very likely to bring the virus home to other family members.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, experts strongly advise getting a flu vaccine during 2020-2021 to protect yourself, your family, and others. Flu viruses and the COVID-19 virus are both likely to spread during flu season. A flu vaccine will help save medical resources to care for people with COVID-19. People at high risk for complications from the flu are also likely to be at high risk for serious problems from COVID-19, so it's important to get a flu vaccine.

Flu symptoms

Flu symptoms often come on quickly. Symptoms include:

  • Fever

  • Headache

  • Feeling very tired (fatigue)

  • Dry cough

  • Sore throat

  • Runny nose

  • Muscle aches

Children may also have upset stomach and vomiting. Some symptoms such as fatigue and cough can last many weeks.

To protect your child

Here’s how you can help your child stay healthy:

  • Have your child get a flu vaccine every year, as soon as it is available in your area. This is your child’s best chance to prevent the flu. The flu vaccine is recommended every year for babies 6 months and older, children, and teens.

  • Teach your child to wash his or her hands often the right way. Your child should wash for at least 20 seconds. If your child needs a timer, try humming the "Happy Birthday" song from beginning to end twice. Have your child rinse well and dry using a clean towel.

  • Don't let your child drink from the same cup or use eating utensils that others have used. And don’t share foods.

  • Teach your children to cough or sneeze into their elbow, sleeve, or a tissue. Teach them to wash their hands afterward.

If your child gets sick

  • Give your child plenty of fluids, such as an electrolyte solution, water, juice, and soup.

  • Make sure your child gets plenty of rest.

  • Keep your child at home to prevent the spread of germs. Do so until at least 24 hours after the fever is gone.

  • Use children’s strength medicine for symptoms. Discuss over-the-counter (OTC) medicines with your child's healthcare provider before using them. Note: Don’t give OTC cough and cold medicines to a child younger than age 6, unless your child's healthcare provider tells you to do so. Never give children adult medicines.

  • Talk to your pharmacist if you have any questions about OTC medicines for your child.

  • Don’t give your child aspirin. Aspirin can cause Reye syndrome, a rare disorder that can damage the brain and liver.

  • Don’t give ibuprofen to an infant age 6 months or younger.

  • Ask your child’s provider about antiviral medicine. If taken within the first 2 days of the flu, it can help your child have fewer symptoms and get well sooner.

When to call your child's healthcare provider

Call your child's healthcare provider if your otherwise healthy child has:

  • Fever (see Fever and children, below)

  • Fever with rash

  • Seizure caused by the fever

  • Worsening symptoms, or new symptoms, especially after a period of improvement

  • Signs of dehydration. These include decreased urination (diapers not as wet as usual in a baby or toddler), dry mouth, and no tears when crying.

Call 911

Call 911 if your child has:

  • Bluish-tinged skin

  • Trouble waking up or is not alert

  • Severe or continued vomiting

Fever and children

Use a digital thermometer to check your child’s temperature. Don’t use a mercury thermometer. There are different kinds and uses of digital thermometers. They include:

  • Rectal. For children younger than 3 years, a rectal temperature is the most accurate.

  • Forehead (temporal). This works for children age 3 months and older. If a child under 3 months old has signs of illness, this can be used for a first pass. The provider may want to confirm with a rectal temperature.

  • Ear (tympanic). Ear temperatures are accurate after 6 months of age, but not before.

  • Armpit (axillary). This is the least reliable but may be used for a first pass to check a child of any age with signs of illness. The provider may want to confirm with a rectal temperature.

  • Mouth (oral). Don’t use a thermometer in your child’s mouth until he or she is at least 4 years old.

Use the rectal thermometer with care. Follow the product maker’s directions for correct use. Insert it gently. Label it and make sure it’s not used in the mouth. It may pass on germs from the stool. If you don’t feel OK using a rectal thermometer, ask the healthcare provider what type to use instead. When you talk with any healthcare provider about your child’s fever, tell him or her which type you used.

Below are guidelines to know if your young child has a fever. Your child’s healthcare provider may give you different numbers for your child. Follow your provider’s specific instructions.

Fever readings for a baby under 3 months old:

  • First, ask your child’s healthcare provider how you should take the temperature.

  • Rectal or forehead: 100.4°F (38°C) or higher

  • Armpit: 99°F (37.2°C) or higher

Fever readings for a child age 3 months to 36 months (3 years):

  • Rectal, forehead, or ear: 102°F (38.9°C) or higher

  • Armpit: 101°F (38.3°C) or higher

Call the healthcare provider in these cases:

  • Repeated temperature of 104°F (40°C) or higher in a child of any age

  • Fever of 100.4° (38°C) or higher in baby younger than 3 months

  • Fever that lasts more than 24 hours in a child under age 2

  • Fever that lasts for 3 days in a child age 2 or older

Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Liora C Adler MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 5/1/2020
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