Does Your Child Have ‘The Flu’? Understanding Influenza vs. The Common Cold

January 22, 2015

Flu season is here! The sounds of coughing and hacking and the smell of Lysol have been inescapable at my office the past few weeks as influenza season has gotten underway in my part of Arizona.

When I checked the CDC’s FluView Report this week, I saw that the first case of pediatric death from influenza has already been reported this year. With the influx of sick little children flooding pediatric offices and ERs (schools, churches, grocery stores, and everywhere), here is the information that parents need-to-know when it comes to influenza.

What is influenza?

First of all, I think it’s important to tell you what influenza is NOT. Have you ever been confused by people talking about ‘the flu’? Are we talking about simple vomiting or something deathly?!?! Many parents I work with are regularly confused when I diagnose children with ‘the flu,’ and for good reason, because the public often mixes up these terms: influenza, gastroenteritis, and the common cold. Let’s take a minute to learn the differences between these illnesses.

Influenza is NOT the ‘stomach flu’!

The stomach flu is a nickname for gastroenteritis. We have all had this before! Gastroenteritis usually causes a stomach ache, vomiting, diarrhea and sometimes fever for about 24-48 hours. As medical providers, we refer to this as a self-limiting illness, which means it is a mild disease that will make you uncomfortable for a few days, but your body will usually recover with limited support (like rest and plenty of hydration). While influenza is often times shortened to the same nickname ‘the flu,’ it is definitely not the same thing.

People often mix up these terms: flu, influenza, gastroenteritis, and the common cold. Learn the differences between these illnesses.

Influenza is NOT the common cold.

Influenza and the common cold are caused by different viruses and present very differently. In general, most colds begin gradually. You know that yucky feeling when all of a sudden your throat feels a little scratchy and you think your nose might be runny? Then you start taking vitamin C and zinc and praying fervently. But unfortunately, over the next few days your symptoms slowly get worse. That is a cold. Most of the time, children are able to attend regular activities (as long as they don’t have a fever, trouble breathing, or signs of dehydration) and most colds take about 1-2 weeks to fully recover from.

Influenza is different. Influenza hits fast, like a 2×4 in the head. There’s no question about it; you feel like a victim of something horrible almost immediately! All of a sudden, you are down and out. Influenza almost always causes a fever of 101 degrees or higher and body aches and pain. Children will have cough and congestion, and *important point* they will not want to run around playing or engaging in normal activities! Little ones with the flu are tired and miserable. You will find them on the couch. Often times, they will frequently have headache, nausea, and vomiting as well.

Here is a great chart that I made to help you tell the difference between a common cold and influenza.

Difference Between Flu And Common Cold

This flu season, make sure everyone is washing their hands, drinking plenty of fluids, getting rest, and staying away from sick people. Stay healthy everybody!

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