Atishoo! Does my child have a cold or flu?

Posted on 25 December 2019

Although a cold and the flu share similar symptoms – and are both caused by viruses – they are two different conditions and so it is important to know the difference between a cold and the flu.

Even if you go to great lengths to protect your child from colds and flu, chances are they will suffer up to 10 colds before their second birthday. “The main difference is that the common cold can be caused by up to 200 different types of viruses, while flu is caused by specific influenza viruses,” says Dr Bianca Vermeulen, a GP at Mediclinic Midstream.

When it comes to the common cold, symptoms usually come on gradually and affect the nose, sinuses and throat. “Most colds start with a sore throat and runny nose, followed by a cough and mild fever within a day or two,” says Dr Vermeulen. “However, if your child has flu, they are more likely to fall ill suddenly with a fever, chills, body aches and fatigue. They might experience a dry cough, sore throat and a runny or stuffy nose too.”

It is important to remember that your doctor won’t prescribe antibiotics for colds or flu because they do not work against viruses. Instead, focus on keeping your little one as comfortable as possible with plenty of fluids and rest while the illness runs its course.

If your baby has a cold or the flu, offer him/her cuddles and reassurance and smaller, more frequent feeds. Paediatric nasal drops may help with breathing while your child feeds, but drops should never be used for more than a couple of days without consulting your doctor. You baby will also benefit from extra sleep.

‘Like babies, young children with infections also need rest, warmth, nourishing food and plenty of fluids,’ says Dr Vermeulen.

A cold can last between three and 10 days, while flu can last up to three weeks. Although you don’t need to take your child to the doctor for the common cold or flu, if you notice any serious symptoms, it’s important that they get seen by a medical professional. These symptoms might incluce a fever above 38°C, trouble breathing, earache, irritability, vomiting or changes in skin colour.

“The best way to prevent colds and flu is to teach your child to wash their hands correctly and often and to not cough or sneeze into their hands, but rather to sneeze into a tissue or their elbow. It is always advisable to avoid contact with sick people,” says Dr Vermeulen. Doctors recommend the annual flu vaccine for children older than six months.


In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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