Flu can be a serious illness in children, especially those who have a chronic medical condition like asthma or diabetes.
- The influenza virus family causes flu.
- Your child may have cold symptoms with moderate fever, headache, muscle aches and pains.
- Usually lasts one week but often takes some weeks to feel 'right' again.
Influenza or 'the flu' is an unpleasant infection with one of the viruses that make up the influenza virus family. It occurs more commonly during winter months and occasionally in epidemics.
There are two main groups of influenza, the A and B family groups and a less common relative, the C group. It is impossible to tell the difference between them based on what symptoms you have, but they can be identified using sophisticated laboratory tests. This may be done during epidemics to understand which virus is in the community.
Signs and symptoms
Flu usually starts like any other respiratory tract infection, but it is accompanied by:
- a moderate fever
- muscle aches and pains
- a prominent cough
Your child is likely to say they feel awful, are excessively tired and will usually need to retire to bed for two to three days.
Course and duration
The illness usually lasts about one week, but it often takes some weeks to feel 'right' again.
Spread of infection
Influenza is highly contagious and is spread by droplets from our mouths and noses which are released into the air when we cough and sneeze. The influenza virus can also be passed on via infected surfaces or objects the infected person has used or touched.
People with the flu are infectious from about two days before the full-blown symptoms of the illness appear until a few days after.
Pneumonia is the main concern for children who catch influenza.See our fact file for more on pneumonia in children.
There are two medications available on prescription which are designed to fight influenza viruses. They are effective if given early enough – in the first two days or so of having symptoms of flu. Check with your doctor which age groups they can be used in. Also note these drugs are not government subsidised and are relatively expensive. Otherwise, you can give your child paracetamol for fever and pain and make sure they drink plenty of fluids.
Annual flu vaccinations are available from the age of six months upwards. Flu vaccine is free for children with a significant underlying illness that puts them at increased risk of complications from flu, such as diabetes or asthma. Pregnant women can also receive free flu vaccine.
It's also worth remembering the importance of good hand hygiene to prevent the spread of influenza viruses.
Influenza is an unpleasant infection and many people will go to the doctor early as a matter of course. Anti-viral treatment for flu is only effective if given in the early stages of the illness and is usually reserved for people at greatest risk of complications.
There was recently a concern about vaccinating children under five years of age due to an increased rate of febrile convulsions observed after children were vaccinated against flu.
These cases in 2010 were linked to a particular brand of flu vaccine – CSL's Fluvax. As of March 2012, there are restrictions on use of this brand in children, but there are other brands available that have not had this issue. The various state and federal health authorities monitor this and publish their recommendations if any problems are encountered.
Influenza virus may change its genetic makeup rapidly each year and this is a problem for vaccine makers.
They can only make a vaccine from last year's infecting strains so are always one year behind the target viruses. However, they are guided by what has circulated in the northern hemisphere the winter before. The vaccine gives the vaccinated person the advantage of recognising and responding to the viruses earlier than an unvaccinated individual, hence protecting against or modifying the illness.
Reviewed by Dr Peter Vine. A former rural paediatrician with more than 20 years experience, Dr Vine is head of campus and senior lecturer UNSW Rural Clinical School, Albury Wodonga.