Whenever one cold and flu season ends, it feels like another one is just around the corner. And when you're a parent, the threat of getting sick is pretty much always there (you probably know every detail in the wallpaper in your pediatrician's waiting room). While it may sometimes seem that you're forever doomed to be sneezing and coughing until your kids are 18 (kids can come down with as many as seven colds per year), the good news is that there are some things you can do to prevent the spread of illness in your home.
Here are 11 things about cold and flu season parents need to know to help identify symptoms, treat them in the most effective way possible, and seek medical attention when necessary. Read on to also get expert advice on what common cold and flu myths you shouldn't believe, and surprising symptoms that are an indication a sick day could be on the horizon.
- Cold and flu season officially starts sooner than you may think. Dr. Kristin Dean, associate medical director at Doctor on Demand, tells POPSUGAR that flu season may strike as early as October, peaking between December and March, and potentially last through May: "Colds are most prevalent in the Fall and Winter, beginning in late August, and causing little ones to suffer from scratchy throats all the way through March or April."
- Certain kids are more susceptible to getting sick. Anyone can get a cold or flu, but according to Dr. Dean, kiddos under the age of five are at a higher risk for complications from the flu, like dehydration or pneumonia, with children less than two years of age being at the highest risk for developing flu-related complications. "Kids with certain health conditions such as asthma or who have a weakened immune system are also at an increased risk," she explains.
- It can be hard to tell the difference between a cold and a flu. Coughing, tiredness, achiness, stuffy nose — according to the Centers for Disease Control, these symptoms can indicate a cold or the flu. But these respiratory illnesses are caused by different viruses. "In general, the flu is worse than the common cold, and symptoms are more common and intense," reports the CDC. "Colds are usually milder than the flu." Dr. Dean adds the flu will cause a fever. "It can range anywhere from 101 to 104 degrees," she says, adding the onset of flu symptoms is usually very quick.
- Symptoms might drag on and on. "A cold virus typically lasts from three to 10 days, while some may last up to two weeks," Dr. Dean explains. Likewise, flu symptoms keep sufferers feeling under the weather for two weeks, but as Dr. Dean explains, "Children can potentially be contagious for a longer period of time than an adult. According to some research, children can be contagious and spread the influenza virus up to 14 to 21 days."
- Treating symptoms effectively and early helps. To avoid getting the flu and limit its severity, the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly urges parents to have their children vaccinated. If you suspect your child has the flu, see your doctor ASAP. "Antiviral treatments for the flu, such as Tamiflu, can decrease the severity of symptoms as well as the duration of symptoms by several days if started within 48 hours of symptoms onset," Dr. Dean says. Meanwhile it's important to be aware that, according to the AAP, giving kids under age four cold and cough medicines "offer little benefit and can have potentially serious side effects." Instead, focus on keeping your kids hydrated and well-rested.
- Cold and flu viruses can live almost anywhere. Not only do germs spread when kids cough or sneeze on or near one another, but Dr. Dean says you can get sick by touching a germy object, too. "This means that someone who is sick can contaminate silverware like a fork or a spoon, and if you use the same silverware, you can catch the virus."
- Sometimes the flu causes unusual symptoms you may not even think of. The flu can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea in kids, according to the CDC. Your little one may also experience a loss of appetite and seem sluggish if they're about to get sick.
- Some flu symptoms are definitely cause for concern. The CDC urges parents to seek medical assistance immediately if children seem to be breathing fast or have trouble breathing; experience a bluish skin color; seem apathetic or won't wake up; act extremely irritable and don't even want to be held; get a rash with fever; don't have an interest in interacting, eating, or drinking; don't have tears when they cry; have significantly fewer wet diapers than usual; or their symptoms go away but then come back.
- There are some things you can do to prevent your family from getting sick. Dr. Dean's simple message for parents: Wash your hands! "Hand sanitizer and washing your hands will be your best friends as we approach the chillier months," she says. Another way to keep germs at bay is to disinfect door handles, countertops, and other household surfaces. And as if you need another reason to set an early bedtime in your house, getting enough sleep keeps the immune system strong. Finally, teach kids how to cover their coughs and sneezes with their elbow to avoid spreading germs with their hands. One last tip: If you arrive at a play date and a child is acting sick, make a graceful exit ASAP!
- We don't know if this cold and flu season will be particularly bad. "Although we know that 2017-18 was a 'high severity' flu season, this does not offer us any insight into the upcoming flu season," Dr. Dean explains.
- Some rumors about cold and flu are just that. Don't believe everything you hear! For example, it's possible to spread illness even if kids seem to be feeling better. Another myth parents should not buy into is that antibiotics will cure kids' colds or the flu, as these are viral infections, which antibiotics don't treat. Finally, as Dr. Dean points out, "starving" the flu or not feeding kids dairy when they're sick will not help them get better faster.