How to Know If Your Kid Has the Flu or Just a Cold

Your kid wakes up with a fever. If you’re anything like us, you’re in the midst of a mild (OK, full-blown) panic. But of course, the best antidote to fear is information.

So we asked San Diego pediatrician Dr. Jaime Friedman, a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, as well as Dr. Cassie Majestic, Emergency Physician and Mucinex Ambassador, all our burning questions. And, we must mention, your first course of action should always be to call your pediatrician if you have any questions or concerns regarding your children's symptoms.

Now, if you need us, we’ll be over here frantically sanitizing our kids’ hands.

child waiting to see the doctor

Q) Are There Any Telltale Signs That A Child's Cold May In Fact Be The Flu?

Dr. Majestic: Typically influenza is a more severe illness than an average cold, but it can be difficult to tell the difference in some cases. Most cases of the flu are associated with fever. Patients with influenza often experience chills, body aches, fatigue, weakness and headaches. Congestion (cough, sneezing, rhinorrhea) can be present in both illnesses, but more so with the common cold.

Dr. Friedman: The flu (influenza) comes on suddenly. It feels like you've just hit a wall. The fatigue, body aches and fever all come at once. Colds are usually gradual. First, a sore throat and runny nose. Then the congestion gets worse, and children will develop a cough that will go from dry to wet because of post-nasal drip and will start to get worse before it gets better. Sometimes the fever with a cold is at the beginning and sometimes a few days into it. The fever is usually lower with a cold than the flu.

Q) So Flu Symptoms Have A Faster Onset Than Typical Cold Symptoms?

Dr. Friedman: Flu is a sudden onset and colds are gradual. But they both have a similar incubation period. That means they both cause illness within a few days of exposure. The timing of a fever with a cold, if it occurs, will vary. Sometimes it is an [initial] symptom, and sometimes it comes a few days after the start of the runny nose and cough. With the flu, fever is one of the initial presenting symptoms along with the muscle aches and fatigue. With the flu, you are less likely to have a runny nose and congestion like you have with a cold.

sister and brother getting a check up

Q) How Soon After Your Child Gets A Fever Should You Go To The Pediatrician? Should You Wait 24 Hours Or For The Fever To Get Above A Certain Temperature Before You Take Your Child To The Doctor?

Dr. Majestic: Measure your child's temperature and other symptoms regularly. Look for any signs of difficulty breathing, severe pain, or mental status changes that could indicate worsening illness or complications.

Dr. Friedman: This really depends on the season and what else is going on. During flu season, if your child suddenly develops a high fever (102-104), you may want to be seen as soon as you can, in case your doctor wants to start an antiviral flu treatment, like Tamiflu. These are most effective if started within 48 hours of the start of symptoms. If your child has been having cold symptoms for a few days and then gets a fever 101-102, it's OK to wait a day or two to see how they do before being seen by a doctor.

However, if your child gets a fever with any chest pain, trouble breathing, headache with neck pain, or ear pain, then take them in to be checked. Fever and sore throat without cold symptoms can be strep, but the quick test most offices use is more active after 48 hours of symptoms, so for this you can wait a day or two to be seen.

little girl sitting on a doctors table

Q) Is The Flu Panic Right Now Warranted, Even With The Pandemic?

Dr. Friedman: I think parents should worry about the flu every year. The flu can be dangerous with potential pneumonia, hospitalization and death as a result. This can be the case for otherwise healthy children, as well as children with underlying medical conditions. Right now, being aware of the widespread nature of the flu is important so parents can make decisions on vaccinating their children and also instructing children on good hand washing. [The media attention] also helps them consider flu when their children get sick, keeping them home from school and calling the doctor.