Colds And Flu: Prevention And Treatment Tips

I always like to start by saying, the flu shot is your best shot at preventing an influenza infection. While it’s best to get immunized early in the flu season, we often continue to recommend getting the flu vaccine well into May. Call you doctor’s office, go to your local pharmacy, or use the CDC’s Vaccine Finder to locate the vaccine available in your zip code. Remember, if you have a baby, they will need two doses (separated by 28 days or more), and if your child is under the age of nine and they have never had the flu vaccine before, they’ll need two doses this year, too!

Is It The Flu Or A Cold?

The CDC has a great chart to help decipher between the common cold and influenza. Sometimes you’ll never know what is in your house and body (!) unless you go in and get tested to identify the virus of cause. But in general, influenza causes a more abrupt onset of illness. You’re fine and then, BAMMO. Influenza often causes severe “cold” symptoms, a high fever, runny nose, cough, congestion, and can lead to things like pneumonia, ear infections, long-lasting fever, dehydration, etc. Young children are at a higher risk for more serious disease (and hospitalization) than older children, so parents should check in with their physician if they are concerned about their infant or toddler’s infection when the flu is peaking.

CDC Cold Or Flu Chart

Most of the time children just look crummy when they get the flu: tired, clingy, feverish, coughing, and lack energy. If this comes on suddenly or parents worry about dehydration, rapid breathing, high fever or lethargy, they should call their child’s healthcare team. Abrupt symptom onset, fever, aches, chills, fatigue, cough, and headache are common. So are muscle aches, especially in the lower legs. I often tell families that influenza makes people feel so bad that patients will complain their hair hurts or even their skin.

Ways to Prevent and Treat the Flu and Flu-Like Symptoms

There is no cure for influenza (antibiotics don’t treat the virus), and antivirals only lessen symptoms. Thankfully, there are over-the-counter (OTC) products that do help ease symptoms & side effects from viruses (including influenza) that cause cold symptoms. First off, cough and cold medicines are not typically recommended in children under the age of four. So most of all, you should reach for anti-fever meds, like acetaminophen or ibuprofen, as it’s the fever that can make us feel so bad.

In addition, we have to be smart about using medicines that contain more than one ingredient to treat different symptoms. Be careful to avoid double-dosing. Being aware of the ingredients in the OTC product you’re using is very important because you don’t want to take another product that includes the same ingredients as another (doubling-up). This can happen if you give your child acetaminophen, for example, for fever and then give a cough and cold medicine containing that same ingredient.

Additionally, if you are taking prescription medicines, know that OTC medicines can interact with those medicines so check with your physician if you or your child is on daily medicines. There are four main OTC treatments that can help treat flu symptoms.

4 OTC Treatments for Battling “Flu” Symptoms:

  1. Mucus Thinners: sometimes flu viruses trigger the body to produce a large amount of thick mucus. This mucus can be especially pesky at night pooling in the back of the throat and triggering more cough. If you feel that you are having trouble coughing out the mucus, it’s because sometimes it’s thicker. Medications with the active ingredient guaifenesin can be helpful and sometimes thin the mucus to make it easier to clear.
  2. Pain Relievers/Fever Reducers: ibuprofen and acetaminophen can reduce fevers, body and headaches associated with the flu. No question this is typically the medicine category that will make your child feel better with a virus that causes a fever.
  3. Cough Medicine: cough suppressants are helpful if your cough is keeping you awake at night, or if your chest or belly are becoming uncomfortably sore from coughing. Dextromethorphan is the most common active ingredient in cough medication. Since cough medicine shouldn’t be used in children under the age of four, I recommend honey sticks to my patients over the age of one. Research shows honey can help with productive nighttime coughing. Use a teaspoon in some warm lemon water or give it to your child directly.
  4. Decongestants: if your nose is stuffed making it difficult for you to breathe, decongestants help to reduce the swelling of your membranes in your nose and open the nasal airway slightly. Active ingredients in decongestants include pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine. Decongestants are not safe for children under the age of four. For children over the age of four, it’s important to note that many decongestants make it hard for children to sleep, so try them first in the daytime.
Wendy Sue L. Swanson, MD, MBE

Meet Our Experts

Wendy Sue Swanson, M.D.

KnowYourOTCs.org Blogger Ambassador and Medical Adviser

Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE, FAAP, is a pediatrician, mother to two young boys, and the author of the Seattle Children’s Hospital Seattle Mama Doc Blog, the first pediatrician-authored blog for a major children's hospital. She is regularly quoted as an expert for The New York Times, USA Today, and the TODAY show. She works diligently to offer parents relevant, practical, and timely health information, and she believes that a growing community of online physicians can empower parents and patients to make informed decisions based on science. Her book, Mama Doc Medicine, was recognized as a Gold Award Recipient by the Mom’s Choice Awards. Dr. Swanson is also the founder and executive director of Digital Health at Seattle Children’s. She is an executive committee member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media and is on the boards of both Parents magazine and the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media. A practicing pediatrician with The Everett Clinic, Dr. Swanson is also an advocate on the topic of vaccines and was named a CDC Childhood Immunization Champion in 2012. She was named to TIME Magazine's Best Twitter Feeds of 2013. She can be found on Twitter (@SeattleMamaDoc) and Facebook.