Fever, sore throat and body aches are never fun, but it’s especially hard when baby comes down with the flu—and sorry to say, it happens more often than we’d like. So it’s a good idea to be prepared. Here's how to spot the telltale symptoms, plus how to safely treat flu in babies and prevent your child from getting sick again.
What Is the Flu?
Influenza, aka the flu, is a respiratory illness caused by viruses, says Danelle Fisher, MD, FAAP, chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. Like many illnesses, the flu in babies can range in severity from mild to severe and can potentially even be fatal.
Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for infants to come down with the flu. “They get it just like they get colds,” says Ari Cohen, MD, chief of the division of pediatric emergency medicine at the MassGeneral Hospital for Children in Boston. The number of baby flu cases each year ultimately depends on the severity of the flu season; as you might guess, if the flu is running rampant, babies are at a higher risk of contracting the illness too. According to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 7,000 and 26,000 children under the age of 5 have been hospitalized since 2010 due to the flu.
What Causes the Flu in Babies?
Babies contract the flu the same way adults do: by coming into contact with influenza viruses when infected people cough, sneeze or talk, Cohen says. While person-to-person contact is the most common way baby flu is transmitted, little ones can also get sick from touching a surface that’s contaminated with the virus and then putting their hands in their mouth.
Is flu contagious?
The flu is easily passed from one person to the next—in fact, “we’re finding out that the flu tends to be a little more contagious than we thought,” Fisher says. People tend to be sick for a day before they start to exhibit symptoms, and may unknowingly pass it onto baby before they realize they have the flu. There’s now evidence that little ones can get sick just by breathing or being in the same room as someone with the flu, Fisher says.
Flu Symptoms in Babies
So how can you spot the flu in babies? Infants experience the same symptoms as adults, but of course can’t clearly tell you what they’re feeling. Unlike the cold, influenza tends to come on quickly, often prompting the following flu symptoms in babies:
- Body aches
- Sore throat (which manifests as decreased appetite)
- Runny or stuffy nose
Let your pediatrician know right away if you see any of the following symptoms in baby:
- Trouble breathing
- Bluish skin color
- Inability to eat
- No tears when crying
- Not waking or interacting with others
- Not wanting to be held
- Fever with a rash
Baby Flu Treatment
If baby is exhibiting flu-like symptoms, your pediatrician will likely give her a flu test in the office. If it’s positive and you’ve caught it within the first 48 hours of baby showing symptoms, infants 2 weeks and older will likely be treated be treated with Tamiflu, an antiviral prescription medication that can shorten the course of flu in babies by a day and lower the risk of complications, says Gina Posner, MD, a pediatrician at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California.
If your child’s symptoms are mild, your pediatrician may recommend merely treating them to make your little one more comfortable. “I don’t treat the vast majority of pediatric patients with anything aside from Tylenol for achiness and relief,” Cohen says. However, every doctor is different and may prescribe an alternate course of treatment. Either way, make sure baby gets plenty of rest and drinks lots of liquids.
How long does the flu last?
There’s a pretty wide range in how long babies can be impacted by the flu. For some, baby flu is short lived, with a fever that lasts a few days and a cough that hangs on for a week, Posner says. In others, the fever can last a week and the cough can stick around for a month. “It’s hard to tell who is going to get it the worst,” she says.
Baby Flu Prevention
Of course, the best way to keep your child safe from the flu is to do what you can to prevent baby flu from developing in the first place. Some things are out of your control, of course, but there are a few ways you can help keep your little one flu free.
• Practice good hand hygiene. Encourage others to always wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water before coming into contact with baby, Fisher says.
• Avoid being around sick people. If someone has a cough or runny nose, ask them to postpone their visit to see your little one.
• Stay away from crowded areas. Keeping baby away from malls, stores and other crowded areas during flu season can help lower the risk, Posner says.
Flu shot for babies
The CDC strongly recommends the flu shot for babies who are 6 months and older. It’s given in two doses, four weeks apart, to help their little bodies mount the best antibody response, Fisher explains, and should be administered ideally by October, before flu season is in full swing. There are several types of influenza viruses, but the shot protects baby against those that research suggest will be the most common that season. Because of this, the effectiveness of the flu shot for babies can vary from year to year, Posner says, but statistics show that kids who get the shot are less likely to have serious complications from the illness than those who weren’t vaccinated.
The flu shot can potentially prompt some side effects, but they tend to be incredibly mild, Cohen says. “Occasionally we see a low-grade fever or runny nose, but they’re temporary side effects and usually last for 24 to 48 hours,” he says. “I haven’t had any babies have any kind of severe reaction from the flu vaccine.”
Babies under 6 months old are too young to get the flu shot, so the best way to protect infants from the flu is to make sure baby’s caregivers get vaccinated. If you get the flu shot while pregnant, your body produces antibodies that then pass through the placenta to baby, Cohen says, helping to protect your little one even after she’s born. Once you begin to breastfeed, you continue to pass antibodies onto baby through your breast milk.
Updated February 2018
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