Colds and the Flu in Children
According to the CDC, American children miss nearly 22 million days of school each year because of the common cold. Children are more likely than adults to get colds and the flu because they are often in very close contact with one another at school and when they are playing. An important way to prevent colds and the flu from spreading from child to child is to keep your children home from school or daycare when they are sick. If your child has the flu, it is generally safe for him or her to return to school after being without a fever for 24 hours.
Studies have shown that children under two years old are more likely than older children to have serious complications from the flu. These complications can include pneumonia, dehydration, worsening of long-term medical problems like a heart condition or asthma, encephalopathy (a disease of the brain), croup (a condition that causes a cough that sounds like a bark), convulsions due to a fever, sinus problems, and ear infections. Each year about 1 in every 1,000 children under five will be hospitalized because of the flu. Rarely, complications from the flu can lead to death. Parents of young children should be very careful to take steps to help their children avoid getting the flu. If they do get the flu, parents should be vigilant about worsening symptoms and take their children to the doctor accordingly.
What cold medications are safe for kids and teens?
In early 2007, the CDC issued a warning about giving cold medications to children younger than two. Two of the most common ingredients in cold medications, decongestants and antihistamines, can cause serious side effects in infants and toddlers. Some experts suggest that children younger than age six should not take many of the nonprescription cold medications, especially ones containing an antihistamine.
Before you give any type of cold remedy to a young child, talk to your doctor. If your doctor prescribes something for your child, be sure to tell him or her about any over-the-counter medications your child is taking. That way your doctor can be sure your child is not taking too much of any of the ingredients.
Medications that contain aspirin should not be given to teenagers or children. A condition called Reye’s syndrome sometimes develops in children and teens who are recovering from the flu. It often comes on when young people take aspirin to get rid of a fever or pain. Reye’s syndrome begins with nausea and vomiting, and often progresses to confusion or delirium. It can be fatal.
Although very few children develop Reye’s syndrome, aspirin or products that contain aspirin should not be given to children or teens. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil) do not seem to be connected with Reye’s syndrome.
Flu shots for children
Because of these increased risks, it is recommended that all children who are six months to five years old get vaccinated against the flu. People who interact with children younger than two should also get vaccinated, especially those in contact with children less than six months old. Babies this young cannot be vaccinated or be given antiviral medications to treat the flu.
The CDC also recommends flu vaccination for any child from six months to 18 years old who has any of the following chronic health problems:
- asthma or other problems of the lungs
- suppressed immune system
- chronic kidney disease
- heart disease
- sickle cell anemia
- any condition that requires long-term aspirin therapy
- any condition that can compromise respiratory function.
In general, the best time for anyone to get vaccinated is October or November. But children six months to nine years old who are getting vaccinated for the first time need two doses of the vaccine. For these children, it’s best to get the first dose in September and the second at least 28 days later. It usually takes about two weeks after the second dose for protection to begin.
Only the flu shot is approved for children younger than two. While a study published in 2007 found that the nasal spray may work better than the shot in these children, this inhaled vaccine seemed to cause wheezing in children younger than one. More studies are needed before the nasal spray can be approved for very young children.
Reminders for children
Children may forget or ignore some of the common-sense steps everyone should take to reduce their chances of getting a cold or the flu. The CDC recommends that parents and caregivers remind children:
To cover their nose and mouth with a tissue when they cough or sneeze — and throw away the tissue. Or to cough into the elbow, not the hands.
To wash their hands often with soap and water, especially after they cough or sneeze. If water is not available, they can use an alcohol-based hand cleaner, but be sure they don’t lick their hands or otherwise ingest the sanitizer.
Not to touch their eyes, nose, or mouth. Germs often spread this way.