Protecting Your Kids From Colds and Flu

By Henry H. Bernstein, D.O.
Content provided by the Faculty of the Harvard Medical School

It's fall, and that chill in the air means that the cold and flu season is upon us once again. Over the next few months, we will see lots of sniffles, sneezes, coughs, sore throats and other symptoms in children and adults alike. It's important to know about these illnesses and how best to prevent them.

What Are These Illnesses?

Colds and the flu (influenza) are respiratory infections, meaning they affect the parts of the body that help with breathing (from the nose down into the lungs). Although these infections are different, it can be hard to tell which one someone has.

The common cold, also known as an upper respiratory infection (URI), tends to affect the nose and throat. It is caused by many viruses, such as rhinovirus, adenovirus, and respiratory syncytial virus. Symptoms include stuffy nose, sneezing, scratchy throat, hoarse voice, dry cough (usually from mucous dripping down the throat), and slight fever. Most people get better completely within five days, though sometimes the symptoms can last up to two weeks. Even with cold symptoms, people generally can keep up with their usual activities.

The flu, caused by the influenza virus, can look like the common cold with only nose and throat symptoms, but often is more serious, involving the lungs and other parts of the body. The flu typically causes sudden onset of fever, chills, sore throat, cough and runny nose and also may cause headache, muscle aches, tiredness, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. The fever can last up to five days or so, and symptoms often limit people's activity levels. The illness starts to improve by the end of that first week. Some people may continue to cough and feel "out of it" for two weeks or longer.

These respiratory illnesses often look different in young children than in adults. For example, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) causes only mild cold symptoms in adults and older children. But in children under 2, RSV often causes bronchiolitis, a more serious illness with inflammation and swelling of the linings of the small airways in the lungs. Children with bronchiolitis usually have a nonstop runny nose and a "tight" or harsh-sounding cough; they also may have wheezing, fast breathing (tachypnea), difficulty feeding, and trouble breathing. Most children with RSV bronchiolitis recover completely in one to two weeks, with any breathing problems beginning to improve as early as the third day.

Keep Those Germs Away

Although colds and the flu are more common during the winter months, they are caused by viruses, not by exposure to cold air or going out with wet hair. These viruses are spread through physical contact, such as when you touch, kiss or shake hands with infected people and their secretions (for example, from a runny nose) and then touch your eyes, mouth, or nose with the dirty hand. Many viruses can live for at least half an hour on the hands and for several hours on countertops, toys, and other surfaces. They also are spread through the air, on tiny droplets of infected water that come out when someone with a cold or flu sneezes or coughs near you.

Since prevention truly is the best medicine, use careful hygiene and regular housecleaning to help prevent these respiratory illnesses. Wash your hands often, and teach your children to wash theirs, scrubbing with soap and warm water for at least 15 seconds (about as long as one verse of "Happy Birthday"). You can also use one of the alcohol-based hand cleaners (even though they are called antibacterial gels, they also kill viruses). Change cloth towels often and launder them in hot water. Use disposable tissues when wiping noses, and wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing frequently. Regularly wipe down all surfaces, including toys, with a virus-killing disinfectant. Finally, try to avoid exposing young children, particularly infants, to secondhand tobacco smoke, which increases the risk of severe viral respiratory infections.

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If you have the flu, you are contagious one day before symptoms appear and up to five days after.