How to Care for a Child With the Flu

No one likes having the flu—it's a miserable illness and makes pretty much anyone feel horrible. But feeling confident that you know how to care for a child with the flu can ultimately help both of you feel better.

Fortunately, kids are typically very resilient—in fact, they're often able to handle having the flu better than adults. But there are some special considerations to take into account.

Mother taking daughter's temperature
Blend Images / KidStock Collection / Brand X Pictures 

Understanding Symptoms

The symptoms of the flu are similar in children to those of adults, except that children will sometimes have vomiting and diarrhea (rare in adults) in addition to the typical upper respiratory symptoms.

The flu comes on suddenly. You will likely notice that your child seems perfectly fine and healthy and then all of a sudden develops a fever, fatigue, body aches, and other symptoms of the flu such as sore throat and cough. Although symptoms of the flu are similar to those of other respiratory illnesses, such as the common cold, the course of the illness is different. Colds start out slow and gradually worsen over the course of a few days. The flu hits hard and fast. Most people describe it as though they were "hit by a truck."

What About Flu Shots?

Because young children are at much higher risk for severe complications from the flu, most of them should be immunized as soon as the flu shots for the current year become available.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that, with only rare exceptions, everyone over the age of 6 months should get the flu shot.

Any child with a chronic medical condition, such as asthma or a weakened immune system, is considered to be at high risk from flu complications: These children, age 6 months or older, should always get the flu shot as soon as it is available.

Fever and the Flu

When it comes to a child with a fever, there are two situations when you should call the doctor immediately:

  • An infant up to 3 months whose rectal temperature is above 100.3 degrees or below 97 degrees: Babies this young cannot regulate their temperatures well, so you shouldn't wait to call the doctor.
  • A child between ages 3 months and 6 months with a rectal temperature of over 101 degrees: Although these older babies can regulate their body temperature better than when they were younger, a temperature over 101 degrees is still a serious concern.

For any child older than 6 months, the best gauge for treatment is the way he or she is behaving. If your child has a high fever but is active and behaving pretty normally, you needn't be as concerned as you should be if, despite having only a low fever, your child seems unhappy and doesn't want to play.

In general, even a high fever is not harmful in itself (unless caused by environmental factors, such as being out in the sun or in a hot car). For example, if your child's temperature is 102 degrees, but he or she is still running around playing, there's no reason for concern and no reason to treat it. If the child is uncomfortable and not playful, then check with the doctor about treating the fever with acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin or Advil). Be sure not to give aspirin to a child under age 18. Why? Because of the risk of a serious illness called Reye's syndrome.

Rest and Fluids

Knowing how to care for a child with the flu includes understanding his or her need for plenty of fluids and, probably, extra rest. But there's no need to make sick children stay in bed all day if they feel like getting up. Kids are pretty good about not pushing themselves too hard when they don't feel well. As noted earlier, you can usually feel confident basing your treatment on your child's behavior.

Treating Vomiting and Diarrhea

If your child is vomiting or having diarrhea, it's important to be sure he or she doesn't get dehydrated. Once the vomiting stops, the best way to maintain hydration and replace lost electrolytes is to give the child small sips of Pedialyte. Space these sips out; give one every five to 10 minutes so you can be sure your child is able to keep the fluids down.

A Word From Verywell

Of course, anytime you're concerned about your child's symptoms or behavior, whether from the flu or something else, it's a good idea to call your pediatrician. He or she can tell you whether you need to bring your child in to be seen or if you can treat the symptoms at home.

Following these guidelines and using your best judgment, you should be able get your child through the flu and back to normal activity soon.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Influenza in children. Paediatr Child Health. 2005;10(8):485-7. doi:10.1093/pch/10.8.485

  2. Nowak GJ, Sheedy K, Bursey K, Smith TM, Basket M. Promoting influenza vaccination: insights from a qualitative meta-analysis of 14 years of influenza-related communications research by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Vaccine. 2015;33(24):2741-56. doi:10.1016/j.vaccine.2015.04.064

  3. Barbi E, Marzuillo P, Neri E, Naviglio S, Krauss BS. Fever in Children: Pearls and Pitfalls. Children (Basel). 2017;4(9). doi:10.3390/children4090081

  4. Suh JS, Hahn WH, Cho BS. Recent Advances of Oral Rehydration Therapy (ORT). Electrolyte Blood Press. 2010;8(2):82-6. doi:10.5049/EBP.2010.8.2.82

Additional Reading
  • Diarrhea. American Academy of Pediatrics-HealthyChildren.Org (2015).
  • Fever and your baby.” American Academy of Pediatrics-HealthyChildren.Org (2009).
  • Treating a fever without medicine.” American Academy of Pediatrics-HealthyChildren.Org (2015).
  • “Vaccination: who should do it, who should not, and who should take precautions. ”Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2015).

By Kristina Duda, RN
Kristina Duda, BSN, RN, CPN, has been working in healthcare since 2002. She specializes in pediatrics and disease and infection prevention.