by Heidi Renner, M.D.
Your little one is coughing, sneezing and asking for comfort. How can you tell a cold from the flu? Knowing the difference between the two is important for any parent.
Although colds and the flu are both respiratory illnesses, they're caused by different types of viruses. The problem is that colds and the flu share symptoms, like coughing and sneezing. But I've listed a few ways to distinguish between the two. Keep in mind that every child is different. If you're worried about him or her, don't hesitate to call your pediatrician.
How can I tell if it's a cold?
Colds are generally milder than the flu and usually last for about a week. Children typically develop a sore throat. The cold is more likely to cause sinus symptoms -- such as a runny nose, sniffling and sneezing -- followed by a cough. Kids can also present a low-grade fever, which is usually around 100 F. The symptoms of the flu also generally last longer -- up to two weeks -- than the symptoms of a cold, which usually last three to seven days.
How can I tell if it's the flu?
More severe than a cold, flu symptoms tend to come on quickly: Your child can feel fine one day and horrible the next. The main symptom of the flu, however, is a fever. Kids can get a high-grade fever of up to 106 F. (Click here to learn more about when to call the doctor for a fever.) Other telltale signs include a dry cough, body aches and an overall feeling of fatigue.
What's the best way to treat the viruses?
If your child has the flu, and she or someone in your home has a compromised immune system -- an infant, a senior citizen, or someone with a chronic illness -- call your pediatrician right away. Your doctor will want to prescribe an antiviral medication, which is most effective when taken 48 hours after onset. This can help prevent the spread of the flu, which can cause potentially dangerous complications, like pneumonia.
Otherwise, you can treat both illnesses the same way: Make sure that your child gets plenty of rest and fluids. You can use a fever-reducing medication, like acetaminophen, to bring down his or her temperature, as well as OTC meds to relieve symptoms.
If your child experiences respiratory problems and has trouble breathing, has a fever that lasts more than three days, or doesn't seem to be getting better with time, call your doctor. You want to make sure that he didn't develop a complication, such as pneumonia or a sinus or ear infection.