Cold & Flu

The Children's Cold Symptom Translator

Below is your guide to spotting flu symptoms in children.

Infants Younger Than 6 Months

Babies in the first six months of life are at the greatest risk of complications from the flu, says Snyder, because their immune systems are not fully mature yet, and their very small airway makes it easy for them to experience respiratory distress.

If your infant has a fever, one of the flu symptoms, call your doctor and watch for other signs of illness, such as dehydration. "When babies this age don’t feel good, they usually don’t want to drink," she adds. Provide plenty of water to keep an infant hydrated. As a general rule, you do not want to give your baby cold medicine. Check with a medical professional for proper guidance on treatment for flu.

Children 6 Months to 2 Years

Kids younger than 2 years who come down with the flu often have respiratory symptoms (cough, runny nose, and sneezing), high fevers (sometimes as high as 104º F), diarrhea, and vomiting. "But while many kids have all of these flu symptoms, others may only have one," says Snyder.

Recognizing the early signs in toddlers is especially important, she says, because they can get dangerously dehydrated very quickly as well. In addition, because of their smaller airways, babies can quickly progress to having wheezing and labored breath, which requires medication. Signs that a child’s breathing is compromised include wheezing, fast breathing or shortness of breath, and nose flaring. Call your doctor or seek emergency care immediately if your toddler shows signs of labored breathing.

Children 2 to 4 Years

A child who can’t talk yet (or can’t talk well) obviously can’t tell you that his body aches all over, so you need to be alert for behavioral changes, says Snyder. For instance, in many cases, children with flu symptoms will have shaking chills and refuse to walk, because their legs are very achy.

"With kids under the age of 4, you really have to watch them to see how they’re acting. Respond to anything that seems out of the ordinary," adds Snyder. "Young kids often have a limp look to them. Or they’re so uncomfortable they just want to be held."

Children 4 to 6 Years

Once kids can tell you how they feel, listen for complaints similar to an adult’s. But be aware that if your child is younger than 6, oral over-the-counter cold and flu medications are not recommended. "You should never give children this age decongestants, cough suppressants, and other OTC cold remedies, because of the side effects," says Snyder.

But there are other things you can do. "It’s OK to give your child acetaminophen or ibuprofen for fever or pain reduction," adds Snyder. It’s also safe to apply a topical medicine such as Vicks VapoRub® to help relieve flu symptoms. For some children who don’t mind saline nasal sprays for stuffy noses, be careful not to use them too often (more than six times a day), because overuse can cause swelling of a child’s nasal passages.

Other beneficial non-drug treatments for colds and flu include a cool mist humidifier. Just be sure to use one that has a humidity gauge and to keep the level at no higher than around 50% to avoid a mold problem.

Children Older Than 6 Years

For children older than 6, cold symptoms are essentially the same as adults’ symptoms. At this point, OTC decongestants and cough suppressants are generally safe, although they’re not recommended for children with certain health conditions. For instance, if your child is taking medication for ADHD, ask your doctor before giving him or her a decongestant, because the combination of the two drugs to treat flu has been shown to cause heart problems.

In addition, kids with asthma or any kind of respiratory problem should stay away from cough suppressants, says Snyder, because these products might make it harder for them to clear secretions from their lungs, which can lead to pneumonia.