Children with influenza, known as the flu, usually get better at home. However, when their symptoms are severe or last a long time, a child may need to go to the hospital for treatment.

Certain signs and symptoms indicate that medical treatment is necessary to avoid complications. Parents and caregivers should be aware of these so that they know to take prompt action when necessary.

In this article, we list the flu symptoms to watch out for in children. We also explain the typical timeline of flu symptoms and when to take a child to the hospital.

A caregiver looking after a child with the flu. Usually, a caregiver will not need to take a child to the hospital with the flu as they will likely get better at home.Share on Pinterest
Image credit: Dean Mitchell/Getty Images

The flu is a respiratory illness. It occurs when an influenza virus infects the nose, throat, or, occasionally, the lungs. The symptoms of the flu in children are similar to those in adults. They include:

Some children may also experience vomiting or diarrhea.

Flu is not the same as the common cold. Some key differences between cold and flu symptoms can help a parent or caregiver identify which disease is affecting a child.

Usually, a fever and extreme tiredness accompany the flu. These symptoms are much more unusual in colds.

It is also important to note that the symptoms of the flu can be similar to those of COVID-19, which SARS-CoV-2 — the new coronavirus — causes. If there is a possibility that a child might have COVID-19, it is important to make sure that staff members are aware of this before arriving at a hospital or medical facility.

In most cases, parents or caregivers can treat a child with the flu at home. However, when the child has more severe symptoms or symptoms that persist for longer than normal, they may need to go to the hospital.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), if a child has the following symptoms, they require emergency medical treatment:

  • rapid breathing or difficulty breathing
  • blue tinge to the lips or face
  • ribs pulling in with each breath
  • chest pain
  • severe muscle pain
  • dehydration — signs in children include not urinating for 8 hours or more, having a dry mouth, or producing no tears when they cry
  • not alert
  • seizures
  • fever above 104°F (40°C)
  • in children less than 12 weeks of age, any fever, which is 100.4°F (38°C) or higher
  • fever or cough that worsens or improves and then comes back

This list is not exhaustive. If a parent or caregiver is concerned about any symptoms that do not appear on this list, they should still consult a medical professional.

If a child does require hospital treatment, doctors can use a range of treatments to help them recover from the flu. These include:

  • intravenous (IV) fluids to treat dehydration
  • antiviral medications to combat the flu virus
  • oxygen therapy, if a child is struggling to breathe

According to the CDC, since 2010, 7,000–26,000 children younger than 5 years of age have required hospitalization each year due to the flu.

Children are at risk of developing health complications from the flu. One study looking at a sample of children with the flu noted that 28.6% of them developed complications.

Some possible complications include:

  • Pneumonia: This lung infection can cause breathing difficulties.
  • Worsened chronic medical conditions: The flu can sometimes make a chronic medical condition, such as diabetes, asthma, or cystic fibrosis, difficult to manage.
  • Brain dysfunction: Sometimes, the flu may cause encephalopathy. This term refers to damage or disease that affects the brain.
  • Sinus problems: The flu may cause a child to develop sinus infections.
  • Death: It is relatively rare for a child to die from the flu, according to the CDC. They note that in 2017–2018, the flu was responsible for the deaths of about 600 children in the U.S.

As such, it is important for people to get the flu shot every year to protect them from certain types of flu virus.

Children usually require about 2 weeks to recover from the flu, though recovery may take longer if they have severe symptoms or experience complications. The infection usually takes the following course:

Day 1

Flu tends to come on abruptly and unexpectedly. A child may seem fine when going to bed but then suddenly be quite sick the next day.

The virus remains transmissible from children for longer than it does from adults. Therefore, at the first signs of flu, a child should stay at home to rest and prevent the transmission of the virus to others.

Day 2–3

The start of the flu is usually when symptoms are most severe. A child will likely experience fever, fatigue, and weakness.

Day 4–7

After a few days, a child may no longer have a fever. However, they may still feel weak and fatigued.

They may also have a dry cough or sore throat.

Day 8–14

A child should make a full recovery within 2 weeks. Most symptoms will subside after day 7. However, a child may still feel tired or weak up until the 2-week mark.

Most children with the flu will make a full recovery at home without needing to go to the hospital. However, for some children, flu can be dangerous, and medical treatment is necessary.

Children who require hospitalization due to the flu are also likely to make a full recovery. Childhood death from the flu is relatively rare.

The best approach to the flu is to try to prevent it. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, every child 6 months and older should receive an annual flu vaccination. Although this does not protect the child from all flu viruses, it will protect them from the more common strains that researchers predict to be circulating that season.

Parents and caregivers should also encourage children to wash their hands regularly and thoroughly to remove germs.