Are You Ready for Cold and Flu Season?

Dana Wilkosz

It’s that time of year again: the dreaded cold and flu season. 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? Answer the following questions and read on to improve your family’s defenses.

1) Your child comes home from school complaining that she’s not feeling well and has a sore throat. What symptoms should you look for to determine whether it’s a cold or the flu?

a) Sneezing, runny nose, and congestion

b) A fever, and suddenly feeling 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, a pediatric nurse practitioner and 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 usually starts with a sore throat that lasts a couple of days and then a runny nose and congestion set in. The flu, on the other hand, usually begins with a fever, headache, and soreness for a few days, with respiratory symptoms appearing later. “One of the biggest signs that your child might have more than just a cold is a very sudden onset of symptoms,” says Stinchfield. “The whole body becomes achy in a matter of hours, and she’ll feel suddenly exhausted—it’s like being hit by a train.” While a fever may appear with a cold (especially in kids), it won’t do so immediately, as it does with the flu. One more difference to keep in mind: A cold will go away within a week, but the flu’s symptoms tend to last longer—sometimes up to several weeks.

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

a) She was outside on a cold and rainy day

b) She’s been on an airplane

c) The seasons change

Answer: c. Your grandma was right! Kids do get sick as the seasons change. When the warm summer weather vanishes, 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 is some truth to the idea that airplanes are a hotbed for germs and bacteria, it’s the germy surfaces throughout the plane you really need to look out for. What about getting chilled or wet? While that won’t cause a cold, it’s not a good idea to head outside without the right gear if you’re trying to prevent one. “You can’t catch a cold through cold weather, but you should still bundle up—your 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) A spoonful of honey

c) 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 actually be used as a cough suppressant as well, 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, one study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in 2010 found that when toddlers and preschoolers 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 a baby less than a year old, since it may contain bacteria 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 fits, and dairy will only make congestion (and coughing) worse, since it can thicken throat mucus.

4. When should your child take the day off from school?

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

b) If he has a fever

c) All of the above

Answer: c “If your child isn’t feeling well or has a temperature higher than 100 degrees, it’s probably best to keep her home,” says Schachter. Sending your kid to school sick not only means she’ll likely pass her cold on to someone else, but she could also be exposed to even more germs—and that may also increase her risk of developing additional complications, like an ear infection, since kids bodies tend to be more susceptible when they’re already sick. And when in doubt, or if symptoms worsen or don’t improve after a week: 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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