Does my child have a cold, or is it flu?

cold and flu differences

Your child has come home from school with a runny nose and red cheeks.

This is nothing out of the ordinary.  Children pick up viruses easily from other children, especially in daycare settings or at school.

Spreading of viruses

Viruses spread by means of droplets in the air, or from being transferred by hand onto surfaces or objects, such as toys or table tops. When these are touched, and the child then touches its mouth or nose or eyes, the viruses can be transferred to another child.

Cold or flu?

Children who are healthy otherwise should shake off the usually mild cold symptoms within a few days.  But how does a parent tell if it is actually flu, and therefore something more serious? And no, parents cannot always use their own experiences as a benchmark.  There are differences in flu symptoms between adults and children (such as the presence of nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea).

As both flu and colds are respiratory illnesses, a runny nose is the most obvious symptom parents notice first.  A runny nose, however, can signify both flu and a cold.

Here is a quick summary of the basic differences between a cold and flu in children:

cold and flu symptoms


Flu, if not treated adequately, can result in pneumonia and bacterial infections.  It is therefore important for parents to know what a child has.

Good to know

Treatment for flu usually consists of lots of rest in bed, drinking plenty of fluids, and the taking of over-the-counter medication to relieve the flu symptoms and the fever. Speak to your pharmacist about the best treatment for your child. Antibiotics are not effective against flu viruses.

If a child experiences breathing difficulties, or a high fever, or new symptoms appear, a visit to the GP or emergency room is essential.

The best ways to prevent both a cold and flu are to limit contact with infected people (not always possible) and to encourage your child to wash his/her hands often.


By Susan Erasmus

(Sources: National Institutes of Health; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Johns Hopkins Medicine)

The Content on this site is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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