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Cold and Flu Treatments

Coping With Cold and Flu Symptoms


Updated May 16, 2014

Mother giving son (4-6) medicine
Britt Erlanson/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Typically, parents are told to just treat the symptoms of a cold or the flu and make their child comfortable, because these common infections are caused by viruses and there are no treatments. While symptomatic treatments are important to help your child feel better, this is not totally true anymore. There are many medications available now to help treat the flu.

Symptoms of a Cold

Cold symptoms are usually mild and develop 2-5 days after you are exposed to somebody else that is sick. Symptoms may include a fever, runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, sore throat, cough, headache and muscle aches. The runny nose typically begins with a clear runny nose, but after 2-3 days, it may become thick and green or yellow. Symptoms usually worsen over the first 3-5 days, and then slowly go away over 10-14 days.

Treating a Cold

Since it is caused by a virus, antibiotics do not work against the common cold. These types of upper respiratory infections go away on their own and taking antibiotics will not help your child get better any faster and will likely not prevent secondary bacterial infections, such as an ear infection or sinus infection. Although there is no cure for colds, that does not mean that you can't treat your child's symptoms to help him feel better. Extra fluids, a cool mist humidifier, and rest will likely help with some of his symptoms. Younger children, since they can't blow their nose, may benefit from using saline nasal drops and a bulb syringe to help keep their nasal passages clear. Over the counter medications that may help, depending on your child's symptoms, include a pain and fever reducer, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, and a cold medicine with a decongestant and/or cough suppressant (children who are at least age 6-years).

Zinc lozenges, although commonly used by adults, have not been shown to be helpful for kids and are not always well tolerated and should probably be avoided.

Flu Symptoms

Although flu symptoms are similar to those caused by a cold, they are in general a lot worse. Children with the flu will usually have a rapid onset of a high fever, severe headache and muscle aches, and chills, in addition to a runny nose, nasal congestion, cough, sore throat, vomiting, nausea, and fatigue.

Flu Treatments

The flu, like the common cold, is caused by a virus, so antibiotics don't work against it. However, there are some antiviral medications that can be used to treat the flu and may help your child to get better a few days faster. In general, they are only effective if started within 1-2 days of your child's symptoms beginning. Flu medications include:
  • Relenza (Zanamivir) - a Diskhaler that is given by inhalation to children over the age of seven years. It is effective against Influenza type A and B.
  • Tamiflu (Oseltamivir) - available as a capsule or oral suspension and can be used in children over the age 2 weeks and adults. It is effective against Influenza type A and B.
  • Symmetrel (Amantadine) - an older medication that is only effective against Influenza type A and can be used to prevent and treat the flu in children over 12 months of age
  • Flumadine (Rimantadine) - also only effective against type A Influenza and it is only approved for use to prevent the flu in children under 10 years, and not as a flu treatment.
Because of problems with resistance, the CDC recommends that doctors not prescribe amantadine and rimantadine to prevent or treat flu any longer.

Symptomatic treatments, as described above, may also help your child feel better.

Flu Prevention

The best way to prevent your child from getting the flu is to get him a flu shot each year, especially if he is at high risk of having complications from getting the flu. Many of the flu medications described above can also be used to prevent your child from getting the flu if he is exposed to someone that is sick with the flu.

Is it a Cold or the Flu?

In the past, it really wasn't important to know if your child had a cold or the flu, since in both cases, you just treated the symptoms. But now, since treatments are available for the flu, it can be important to know for sure whether or not your child has the flu. The flu should be suspected if your child has typical flu symptoms as described above, especially if he has been exposed to someone else with the flu. Testing can be done in many doctors' offices from a throat or nasal swab, with results in about ten minutes.

If your child tests positive for the flu, or if testing is unavailable, but the flu is strongly suspected, then he may be a candidate for one of the flu medications described above. Other family members and close contacts might also be a candidate for flu medications to prevent them from getting sick.

Updated for the 2013-2014 Flu Season.

For more information, please visit our guide to Kids and the Flu.


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