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Alanna Levine, MD

Flu In Babies

The real deal on how to keep baby from getting the flu, and what to do if she does.

We do everything we can to keep baby healthy—but it's pretty common for baby to get the flu. So it's a good idea to be prepared: Here's how to spot flu symptoms, treat it safely and prevent baby from getting sick again.

What is the flu like for a baby?

It’s important to note that influenza (what we’ll refer to as the flu here) is different from a “ stomach flu” (which may be more accurately called a “stomach bug”). Influenza is a respiratory virus, and it’s very common, especially during—you guessed it—flu season: late fall to early spring. There are different strains of the flu, and every year, the flu shot contains protection against what doctors believe will be the three most common strains that year.

What are the symptoms of the flu in babies?

Sometimes it's hard to differentiate flu symptoms from cold symptoms, since they also include fever, upper-respiratory issues (runny nose, cough, sneezing) and general aches. So if your child doesn't look well to you, has had a fever for a few days, isn't drinking, is lethargic or has worsening symptoms, contact your pediatrician.

Are there any tests for the flu in babies?

There are. There’s the “rapid test,” which analyzes fluid swabbed from the inside of baby’s nose, but many doctors don’t do that test, since it’s not 100 percent accurate. Usually, if it looks like the flu, they treat it like the flu, so they don’t necessarily need those tests.

How common is the flu in babies?

It’s actually very common—and it’s particularly scary in young children because they’re at higher risk for complications. Each year, 36,000 people die from the flu. Scary complications include pneumonia, bacterial infection and sepsis.

How did my baby get the flu?

It’s spread through droplets that leave the body through coughs and sneezes, so baby was likely around someone who had it or touched something they’d touched after sneezing or coughing.

What’s the best way to treat the flu in babies?

It really depends on the situation. A healthy child is often treated with hydration and rest. If you have a child who’s immunocompromised or has other immune problems, there are antiviral medicines, but baby has to start taking them within 24 to 72 hours in order for them to work.

It’s common for babies who have the flu to get hospitalized, since their airways are really small and it can lead to respiratory distress. Generally, if your child is under the age of 2, you want to be on the lookout for respiratory distress—if it looks like baby’s having trouble breathing (his belly is moving in and out, the muscles between his ribs are working hard, he’s breathing faster than usual, he looks bluish or he doesn’t have the energy to drink), see a doctor immediately.
What can I do to prevent my baby from getting the flu?

If baby is over 6 months old, have him or her vaccinated against the flu annually, at the start of each flu season. Since babies younger than that can’t get vaccinated, make sure you, your partner and any caregivers get vaccinated too. Everyone should get vaccinated annually. Encourage baby and the people around him or her to wash their hands frequently and try not to share toys or cups with kids who are sick.

What do other moms do when their babies have the flu?

“My older son took [Tamiflu] this past year, and it helped a little, I guess. I’d never been around anyone who actually had the flu, but he tested positive for it. The doc said it could last as long as two months. With the meds, he was only sick for about two weeks, and I would say it was another two weeks before he felt 100 percent again.”

“My daughter’s had [swine flu] twice. The first time, she was in the hospital for 10 days. The second time, it wasn't as bad, and we immediately got the vaccine. I figured she'd get it—I have a horrible immune system and get the regular flu at least twice a year. I've also had the swine flu once and got the vaccine.”

“She had influenza type A. They didn't send it out for confirmation that it was H1N1, but that’s the general assumption with most "swine flu" cases. It presented itself like a minor cold and cough. If it hadn't been her first cold or cough ever, we would’ve never known because we wouldn’t have taken her to the pediatrician. But since it was her first, I took her, and lo and behold, it was type A.”

Are there any other resources for the flu in babies?

American Academy of Pediatrics’

Updated December 2016