Flu In Babies And Children

Every winter, flu causes misery for millions of people in the UK. It's not usually serious, but babies and children suffering from it do need careful monitoring.

What is it?

The flu is caused by the influenza virus, which is passed around in the air through coughs and sneezes (it can also live on hard surfaces for up to 24 hours). There are many strains of the virus, including the highly contagious strain H1N1, or swine flu, which caused a pandemic in 2009-10.

The first symptoms of flu are similar to those of a nasty cold – your child might suddenly get a fever (of 38°C or higher), accompanied by a runny nose and cough, a sore throat and a headache. They might then also develop pains in their tummy, diarrhoea and vomiting. It's highly likely they will be experiencing some nasty aches and pains in their body too, and they will be lethargic. Occasionally the symptoms can be relatively mild, but usually flu will make them feel very rotten indeed.

Flu jabs are not currently offered to children on the NHS, other than to those children who are considered to be in a high-risk group. However, in July 2012, it was decided that all children aged between two and 17 years should be offered the vaccination via a nasal spray called Fluenz. You're unlikely to be able to protect your child this year though – the NHS has advised the vaccine will not be available until autumn 2014.

Adults who are not in a high-risk group (and therefore eligible to receive the jab free on the NHS) can pay to have a jab privately – various pharmacies will be offering it during the winter months. It's worth considering – you can not catch the flu from the jab and having one considerably reduces the chances of you catching the virus and passing it on to your children (or, if they catch it, it will stop them passing it on to you – have you ever been in the situation you needed to look after a child when you had flu yourself?! Yuk).

Among the high-risk group are pregnant women, who are more likely to develop nasty complications should they contract swine flu – so don't delay, if you are expecting, go and get yourself covered.

Flu itself is not usually serious (although young babies and children should always be seen by a doctor) – it should clear up after a week or so, with the cough and muscle aches sometimes lasting longer.

However, flu can lead to other problems, including dehydration, and sometimes secondary infections in the ears, throat or chest.

What can I do?

If your child is under three months old and you suspect they have flu, you should telephone your doctor. Similarly, if your baby has a fever higher than what is considered safe (over 38°C is a baby under three months, and over 39°C is a baby under six months), you should seek medical advice straight away.

Unfortunately, because it is a virus, flu itself can not be treated with antibiotics. Occasionally, if a child is diagnosed with swine flu, they will be prescribed Tamiflu – it doesn't get rid of the virus, but might help with the symptoms. In most cases, as horrid as it is, flu can be managed at home with lots of TLC.

Babies over three months can be given the correct dose of liquid paracetamol or ibuprofen (babies over two months may be given paracetamol under a doctor's supervision), which will help to reduce their fever and lessen their aches and pains. Don't use a damp cloth or sponge to reduce their temperature, as the sensation on their tender skin might be very unpleasant for them. Instead, just undress them to their nappy or pants.

Almost all children go off their food when they are unwell. Not eating for a couple of days is unlikely to do your child any harm, but if they have also gone off drinking, you need to work hard to ensure they do not become dehydrated.

Offer drinks frequently (toddlers and older children might be tempted with ice lollies) and if you do see any signs of dehydration, get medical help as soon as possible.

Occasionally, just as you think your child is getting better, they will suddenly go downhill again. If, for example, their fever comes back with a vengeance, go to your doctor – it is possible they have developed a secondary infection, which could be treated with antibiotics.

Children suffering from flu will need plenty of sleep, but keep an eye on them. If your gut instinct tells you they are too lethargic or floppy, or if you can't wake them, call your doctor. And do get help without delay if you notice a rash, or if they appear to be having trouble breathing.

All strains of flu are easily passed on, so encourage your child to use paper tissues to cover their mouth when they cough or sneeze, and put used tissues into the bin straight away. Get obsessive about hand washing and use an antibacterial hand gel. Unless you need to visit the doctor or chemist, it is better to stay at home so you don't pass the infection round.

What else could it be?

If your child started sneezing and coughing before they got a fever, and they don't have any tummy pain, they might have a good old fashioned cold.