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Flu Frequently Asked Questions

CHKD in the News


Click on the image to learn more about whether your sick child should be brought to the CHKD Emergency Department or your child's pediatrician.

What is the flu?

Although many people use the word "flu" to describe non-specific illnesses such as upset stomachs, doctors use the term to describe an infection with the influenza virus. Influenza is a respiratory disease, which means it primarily affects the nose, throat, and lungs. It is highly contagious. The vast majority of people who get influenza recover without treatment in a week or two, but in rare cases the illness can lead to more serious complications, such as pneumonia.

What is swine flu?

The swine flu, often called the H1N1 influenza virus because of its structure, is a type of flu virus detected in people in the United States and Mexico in April 2009. Because it is a type that has not been detected before, a vaccine will not be available until October.

Why is it called “swine flu”?

This virus was originally referred to as “swine flu” because laboratory testing showed that many of the genes in this new virus were similar to influenza viruses that normally occur in pigs in North America. Technically, it is called “novel H1N1” because of its structure. The swine flu cannot be spread through pork products.

Do the regular seasonal flu and swine flu have the same symptoms?

For all practical purposes, yes. In contrast to the common cold, which comes on gradually, influenza symptoms are more severe and tend to start suddenly with headache, fever, chills, cough, muscle aches and extreme fatigue. Younger children may also have diarrhea and stomach pain.

The most common symptoms of the flu in children and adults include:

  • Fever, over 100 degrees Fahrenheit but usually 102 degrees Fahrenheit up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit, usually lasts two to five days
  • Headache that starts suddenly and can be severe
  • Sore throat
  • Sneezing
  • Runny nose
  • Muscle aches
  • Severe coughing, which can become severe tiredness and weakness, which can last two or more weeks.

The symptoms of swine flu are virtually identical to those of seasonal flu. Without blood tests, it’s virtually impossible to tell them apart. Over the past year, in fact, reports suggest that swine flu has caused milder infections and a lower percentage of life-threatening complications than the normal seasonal flu.

When should I call the doctor?

The following are general guidelines for when parents should call their health care providers. If parents are ever concerned about their children's health, they should call their child’s doctor for advice, but especially if the following symptoms are present.

  • Call if the child has a high fever that does not respond to over-the-counter fever medications, including acetaminophen or ibuprofen. This could signal a more serious infection. With both types of flu, fever usually lasts two to five days. Never give aspirin to children or adolescents with fevers as aspirin can cause a potentially fatal illness called Reye’s syndrome.
  • Parents should call their health care provider if their child's fever lasts longer than five days or if it goes away and returns. Call if your child is listless or has no interest in playing or other activities.
  • Call if your child is inconsolable, that is, irritable and cannot be calmed down.
  • Call if your child is not drinking fluids or not keeping fluids down. Poor fluid intake and prolonged diarrhea can lead to dehydration, which can be very serious in children.
  • Call if your child has difficulty breathing, or exhibits fast, hard breathing. If your child is working hard to breathe, your health care provider will need to assess the situation.

What if my child is under five or has an underlying medical condition?

Children may be at high risk for flu complications if they have a chronic health problem such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease, metabolic conditions, neurologic and neuromuscular disorders. In addition, all children younger than 5 years old are at higher risk of flu complications. If your child is a high risk for flu complications, contact your regular doctor as soon as you notice your child is ill. Pregnant women are also at risk for more serious illness. If you are not sure if any of your children are at higher risk for flu complications, please check with your physician.

In children, what symptoms signal the need for emergency medical attention?

If your child experiences any of the following complications, phone your health care provider immediately:

  • Fast breathing or trouble breathing
  • Bluish or gray skin color
  • Not drinking enough fluids
  • Severe or persistent vomiting
  • Not waking up or not interacting
  • Being so irritable that the child does not want to be held
  • Flu-like symptoms improve but then return with fever and worse cough

If I think my child has flu symptoms, should I take him to the emergency room?

If you suspect your child has the flu, you should call your child's regular doctor before going to an emergency room. Be prepared to tell the nurse about your child's specific symptoms. What is his temperature? When did he get sick? What parts of his body hurt? Does he have a headache or sore throat? Muscle aches? Does your child have a chronic medical condition, such as asthma? With this kind of information, the nurse can determine whether or not your child needs a doctor's appointment and, if so, how soon. Children with flu rarely require prescription medications. In most cases, the best treatment is rest at home, as long as you watch out for the symptoms mentioned above concerning when you need to call the doctor. Again, the symptoms and treatments of normal seasonal flu and swine flu are virtually identical. Make certain your child gets plenty of clear fluids such as water, broth, sports drinks and electrolyte beverages for infants to prevent dehydration. In the vast majority of cases, hydration and home rest are the best medicine. Watch the video for more information.

Are there human infections with swine influenza virus in the U.S.?

Yes. Close to 50,000 cases of swine flu have been reported in the U.S. While early media reports suggested that swine flu was especially lethal, reported infections have actually been relatively mild, causing far fewer deaths and hospitalizations than the normal seasonal flu. Most health professionals anticipate that infections will increase as children return to school. It is essential that parents keep children home if flu symptoms are present.

How severe is illness associated with flu?

Each year in the United States, on average 36,000 people die and 200,000 are hospitalized from flu-related complications. Of those hospitalized, 20,000 are children younger than 5 years old. Because of that, vaccinations are essential, especially for at-risk populations and health care workers.

How can I prevent the spread of the flu virus?

Both types of flu virus are spread mainly from person to person through coughing or sneezing. Simple measures like washing hands, good cough etiquette and staying home when you are ill can help prevent transmission.

How long can influenza virus remain viable on objects (such as books and doorknobs)?

Studies have shown that flu virus can survive on environmental surfaces and can infect a person for two to eight hours after being deposited on the surface.

What household cleaning should be done to prevent the spread of influenza virus?

To prevent the spread of influenza virus it is important to keep surfaces (especially bedside tables, telephones, surfaces in the bathroom, kitchen counters and toys for children) clean by wiping them down with a household disinfectant according to directions on the product label.

How long can an infected person spread this virus to others?

With seasonal flu, studies have shown that people may be contagious from one day before they develop symptoms to up to 7 days after they get sick. Children, especially younger children, might potentially be contagious for longer periods. CDC is studying the new flu variant and will provide more information as it becomes available, but it appears from the earliest cases that the same precautions would apply.

Do I need to get both a regular vaccine and a swine flu vaccine?

Yes. Children need vaccination for both types of flu. Preventing an infection with the seasonal flu is an important factor in keeping children healthy in general this fall (see “Vaccines” for more details). A child suffering a bout with the regular seasonal flu may become more susceptible to contracting other infectious diseases including the swine flu at the same time.

In addition, preliminary studies suggest that vaccination with the seasonal flu vaccine may help reduce the severity of the infection with the swine flu.

Because of that, vaccinations for both the seasonal flu and the new variant are critical.

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