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Cold and flu season is here–again. And sure, the two might seem like they’re one and the same, but are they really? And why do kids always seem to get sick once the fall hits, anyway? We’ll help you sort it out as you answer the following questions. Read on to improve your family’s defenses.

1. Your child says she isn’t feeling well and has a sore throat. What symptoms should you look for to determine if it’s a cold or the flu?

a) Sneezing, runny nose, and congestion

b) A fever and complaints of feeling suddenly tired and achy all over

c) Earache and coughing

Answer: b. Distinguishing between a common cold and the more serious influenza can be tricky, says Patsy Stinchfield, director of the Infectious Disease Division at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota in St. Paul. Though they share a lot of the same symptoms–like sore throat, coughing, and congestion–a cold tends to start with a sore throat that lasts a few days and then a runny nose and congestion sets in. The flu, on the other hand, usually begins with a fever, headache, and body soreness for a few days, with respiratory symptoms appearing later. “One of the biggest signs that your child might have the flue is a rapid onset of symptoms,” says Stinchfield. “Body aches start in a matter of hours, and she’ll feel suddenly exhausted.”  While a fever may appear with a cold (especially in kids), it won’t do so immediately, as it does with the flu. Another difference: A cold will go away within a week, bu the flu’s symptoms tend to last longer–sometimes up to several weeks.

2. Your child is most likely to get sick when…

a) He was outside on a cold and rainy day

b) He’s been on an airplane

c) The seasons change

Answer: c. Grandma was right! Kids do get sick as the seasons change. When fall hits, kids spend more time in close germy quarters like a classroom, says Neil Schachter, M.D., medical director of the Respiratory Care Department of the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. And while there’s some truth to the idea that airplanes are a hotbed for germs and bacteria, it’s the plane’s yucky surfaces (like tray tables) that you really need to look out for. What about getting chilled or wet? “You can’t catch a cold through cold weather, but you should still bundle kids up, since their immune system functions better at normal body temperature,” says Stinchfield.

3. The best at-home remedy for coughing is…

a) Gargling with salt water

b) Taking a spoonful of honey

c) Drinking a warm glass of milk

Answer:b. Though most people tend to think of honey as a sweet and easy way to soothe sore throats, it can also be used as a cough suppressant, says heather Jeney, M.D., an integrative pediatrician at The Whole Child Center in Oradell, New Jersey. That’s because honey soothes irritated mucous membranes to decrease the cough reflex. In fact, a 2010 study found that when little kids were given a half teaspoon of honey at bedtime, they coughed less frequently and got more sleep. Jeney recommends a teaspoonful of honey for younger kids and a tablespoonful for big kids and preteens. (Remember, don’t give honey to babies less than a year old, since it could contain bacteria that their immune systems aren’t ready to handle.) As for answers a and c? Gargling with salt water can alleviate throat soreness, but it won’t help with coughing; dairy may only make congestion (and coughing) worse, since it can thicken throat mucus.

4. When should your unwell child stay home from school?

a) When she’s complaining of a sore throat or achiness

b) If she has a fever

c) Either of the above

Answer: c. If your child says her throat or body aches or has a temperature higher than 100 degrees, keep her home, says Schachter. Sending her to school sick not only means she could pass her cold on to someone else–she could also be exposed to even more germs and get sicker, since kids’ bodies tend to be more susceptible when they’re already ill. And when in doubt, or if symptoms worsen or don’t improve after a few days, see a doctor. “A parent’s instinct is their best guide,” says Stinchfield. “If you’re afraid or worried, listen to that voice.”


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