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With flu season upon us, I am gearing up for the influx of patients with flu-like symptoms who will come into our office. Parents often wonder if what they are experiencing is actually influenza or symptoms of a common cold, and how to tell them apart. There are definitely some differences between the two, but as a mom of kids who have gotten their fair share of colds and the flu, I can say both are hard on parents. When your child is sick with the flu it can be a really difficult time for the whole family. If your child gets the flu, it can range from annoying symptoms to a more severe illness, and knowing how to identify whether a sickness is a cold or the flu and treat it is very important. Here are the symptoms to look out for…

1. Fever

Children can have a fever with the common cold or influenza. With influenza, children are more likely to have fever and have a more sudden onset of symptoms. Fevers can range from 100.4 and up and often last five days or even up to seven days with the flu. With a cold the fever generally is more brief, at three to four days. A high fever is not an indication of a cold versus a flu or of the severity of the illness.

2. Cough and nasal congestion

Children can have nasal congestion and cough with either the flu or a common cold. The cough can be wet or dry in quality. Since young children often swallow their phlegm, they may cough and vomit afterward. Often, kids feel better once that happens. In either case, the quality of the breathing is more important than the noisiness of the cough. If a child is breathing rapidly, meaning their belly is moving up and down quickly or you can see pulling in between the ribs so you notice the outline of the ribs, this is a sign the child is working hard to breathe and needs immediate medical attention. Shortness of breath and inability to speak in sentences are other signs of distress.

3. Exhaustion

There is a lot if exhaustion with the flu. Having the flu can feel like you were hit by a Mack truck. It takes time for your child to get back to their baseline energy level. You usually do not see that with the common cold.

4. Headache, sore throat, and achiness

With the flu, a child is much more likely to have headache, sore throat, abdominal pain and vomiting, general body soreness, overall exhaustion, and very decreased appetite. Children with colds do not typically have muscle aches, abdominal pain, or headaches. They may seem tireder but not as exhausted and low energy as children with the flu. Kids with the flu often feel like they have been hit with a truck! With colds children tend to have mostly nasal discharge and cough with or without fever. Having chills is also more common with the flu.

5. Onset and duration of symptoms

Flu symptoms tend to come on more rapidly and are more severe than with a cold. With the flu, typically symptoms last five to seven days but can last longer in some cases. You usually do not see that with the common cold. It is important to remember that symptoms can progress over the course of the illness.

If you think your child has the flu, call your pediatrician. There are tests available for diagnosis, and in some cases treatment for influenza with anti-viral medications is warranted. The best way to prevent your child from getting the flu is by getting them vaccinated if they are over six months of age. There are other illnesses that can be confused with a cold or flu as well. If a child seems to be getting worse, is not tolerating liquids, is having trouble breathing, or has a persistent fever, it is always best to contact your pediatrician.