By Brenna Bream (Estimated reading time: 4 minutes)
Cold and flu season came early this year. In October 2022, Seattle Children’s Hospital was seeing unprecedented rates of a common respiratory virus — respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) — which typically peaks in February or March. Fall and winter are the seasons when viruses that cause cold and flu circulate at high levels in the community. After two winters of recommendations to social distance and mask due to the COVID-19 pandemic, people are more susceptible to the viruses they are exposed to now than they have been in recent years. So what do you need to know to keep your child healthy this viral season?
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, almost all children will catch RSV before the age of 2 and only 3% of children with RSV require hospitalization. While it is inevitable that babies and toddlers get sick, here are some tips to prevent serious illnesses:
- Vaccinate. The seasonal flu vaccine and the COVID-19 vaccine can prevent kids from getting sick with the flu, COVID-19, and a respiratory virus all at the same time. There is not yet a vaccine for RSV, but scientists have been working on a vaccine that could be available in the near future.
- Wash hands thoroughly and keep surfaces clean. Many respiratory viruses spread through the air, but also live on surfaces for several hours.
- Avoid direct contact with people who are sick. It may be common sense, but avoiding contact with those with known illness is the best way to keep your child healthy.
- Consider wearing a mask inside during winter months while circulating viruses are high.
Managing the flu and cold at home
When your child has an upper respiratory infection, such as a cold, symptoms typically include:
- Congestion or headache
- Runny nose
- Eating or feeding less than usual
Usually, these symptoms can be managed at home. For babies and toddlers, you can support them by:
- Relieving mucus build up in the nose with gentle suction using a bulb aspirator or NoseFrida. Use saline drops in the nose before suctioning to loosen secretions.
- Giving frequent feedings or sips. Suction your child’s nose before feedings to allow them to eat and drink with less congestion. Helping them breathe easier helps them drink easier. Your child may not be interested in eating as much as usual, so offering short but frequent feedings or sips can prevent dehydration.
- Using cool-mist humidification to help keep nasal passages moist and make it easier to clear sticky mucus. Hot water and steam humidifiers can burn skin, so it’s best to keep humidification cool. Make sure to clean the humidifier out regularly. If you don’t have a humidifier, run a hot shower with the door closed to let the room steam up – then sit in the bathroom, but not in the shower, with your child.
- For infants older than 6 months, Tylenol or ibuprofen can help with low-grade fevers. Do not give aspirin or cold medication to your child.
When to see the doctor
Call your child’s pediatrician for:
- Fever over 101F, or fever over 100.4F for an infant less than 8 weeks old
- Signs of dehydration, such as fewer wet diapers or drinking less than usual
- Worsening cough
When to get immediate help
Sometimes colds turn into lower respiratory infections, called bronchiolitis. Symptoms include cold symptoms plus signs of breathing changes such as flared nostrils, fast breathing, belly breathing, using the muscles between the ribs to breathe, and head bobbing.
Seek emergency care for:
- Breathing changes
- Color changes around the lips or skin
- Decreased alertness
- Less than 1 wet diaper every 8 hours at the most, or very dark urine
- If your child is refusing to eat or drink
Do your best to keep your child comfortable and hydrated when they are sick. Cold and flu season is challenging, especially when children get sick one after the other. Consider prevention measures, and if your family does get sick, stay home from daycare, work, and school if you can and wear masks if you do need to go out in public. When it comes to supportive care, you have the tools to help your child recover. Better days are ahead!