Colds and flu

Fast facts about colds and flu in children

  • Flu is an acute infection of the respiratory tract caused by influenza viruses14
  • Flu is highly contagious, particularly when children share close quarters like they do at school51
  • Children with flu can infect others a day before their symptoms start, and 5-7 days after they get sick51
  • Flu can easily spread from child to child as they share things like pencils, toys, computers, etc.51
  • Over-the-counter analgesics that contain paracetamol and/or ibuprofen may help to ease the pain, inflammation and fever5

It can be difficult to tell the difference between the symptoms of colds and flu, especially when your child may be too young to describe exactly what they're feeling.15 It's important to know the difference between the two. In general, flu is worse than the common cold and symptoms are more intense.15

Signs and symptoms Influenza Cold
Symptom onset Abrupt Gradual
Fever Usual Rare
Aches Usual Slight
Chills Fairly common Uncommon
Fatigue, weakness Usual Sometimes
Sneezing Sometimes Common
Stuffy nose Sometimes Common
Sore throat Sometimes Common
Chest discomfort, cough Common Mild to moderate
Headache Common Rare

Adapted from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, 201815

A common cold will come about gradually over the course of a few days.16 It will affect mainly your child's nose and throat.16 While they might feel a bit under the weather, they will still be able to carry on with normal play despite having a runny or stuffy nose or a sore throat.16

Flu symptoms, on the other hand, will happen quickly.16 Your child will go from feeling well to very unwell within a few hours.16 Their symptoms will make them feel too tired and sick to carry on with normal play.16 Other symptoms include body aches, a cough, sore throat, headache, chills and fever.15

Helping your child at home

If your child has a cold or flu, encourage them to get plenty of rest.52 Drinking a lot of fluids will not only help loosen mucus but will also replenish liquids lost from vomiting, diarrhoea, and fever.52 Fluids will also help fight infections.52 The best choices are water, herbal tea or clear soups.52 Using a humidifier in their room can help break chest and nasal congestion by placing moisture in the air.52 Gargling with warm salt water can help relieve a sore throat while salt water nose drops can help loosen mucus.52

Would an analgesic be of value?

Yes, ask your doctor or pharmacist for an over-the-counter analgesic that contains ibuprofen and/or paracetamol for relief of pain and fever.51 Follow the dose recommendation for your child’s age.

When to contact a doctor

Contact your child's paediatrician if the cold and flu symptoms are accompanied by:51

  • Breathing problems
  • Bluish or grey skin
  • An abnormal response, e.g. doesn’t cry when expected or doesn’t make good eye contact, or listless and lethargic
  • Signs of dehydration because he/she is not drinking fluids: absence of tears when crying, dry nappies, low energy
  • A seizure

Frequently asked questions