Is it a Cold, the Stomach Bug or Influenza? Know the Signs, Symptoms and Next Steps if Your Child Falls Ill this Flu Season

Posted on January 24th, 2017

Runny noses and stuffy noses. Coughing and sneezing. Upset tummies, sore throats, fevers and fatigue. The common cold, the stomach bug and influenza are three very different illnesses that often start out looking very much the same. If your child wakes up feeling unwell or is sent home from school with a cough, sore throat, fever or congestion, how can you tell if it’s just a bug that’s going around—or something more serious? Go through our checklist below and schedule a chat with your child’s healthcare provider!

Does my child have a cold or the flu?  The common cold and influenza are both caused by viruses and can look very much the same at first—and it’s so important to know the difference. Both viruses affect your child’s breathing system but colds usually clear up over time and very rarely cause complications. The flu is a bigger cause for concern (especially for children with chronic illnesses, infants and babies) and should be addressed as soon as possible.

Take a look at the symptom chart below to find the most likely culprit for your child’s illness:

Did your child get sick:   quickly slowly
Is your child’s fever:      high mild or nonexistant
Does your child have chills?   yes no
Are your child’s head and muscles: aching just fine
Is your child’s energy level:    exhausted a little tired
Is your child’s appetite:          gone normal


I think my child has a cold. What should I do?  There is no vaccine that can prevent the common cold and no medicine that can cure it. Your doctor may recommend over-the-counter treatments to reduce fever or congestion, but children with colds need plenty of fluids and lots of rest to get back to feeling their best. (Asking your child’s doctor for antibiotics to treat a common cold can be harmful, not helpful.) A cold usually should run its course in three to ten days. To keep your child from spreading their cold to other members of the family or their friends, encourage frequent hand-washing, remind them to cough or sneeze into the crook of their elbow, and keep them home until their symptoms clear up.

That said, there are other, more serious illnesses that can mimic a cold at first, like pneumonia or strep throat. If after a few days, chicken soup and sleeping in aren’t making a difference in your child’s symptoms—or if they are getting worse—definitely let your doctor know right away.

I think my child has the flu. What should I do?. It is first important to differentiate the “stomach bug” (gastroenteritis – sometimes called the stomach flu) and “the flu” (influenza) as they are very different illnesses. Both spread easily and can cause dangerous complications in young children, so it is important to understand which illness your child has so you can get them the best treatment.

Is it a stomach bug?  Symptoms of the stomach bug include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramps and pains. If your child’s stomach bug was caused by a virus, like norovirus, they may also have a fever, headache and body aches.

  • I think my child has stomach bug. What should I do?
    The “stomach bug” can be caused by bacteria, viruses like norovirus, parasites, or be a reaction to contaminated food or water. There are no vaccines that can prevent stomach bug and it is only some situations in which stomach bugs can be treated with antibiotics. Much like the common cold, norovirus and other forms of stomach bugs need to run their course. Talk to your child’s physician about the best course of treatment.

    If your child is suffering from a form of the stomach bug, it is very important to make sure they are getting enough fluids. This can be a challenge when their tummies are so upset, but dehydration is the most dangerous complication of the stomach bug. Try offering a flat soda, like ginger ale, or Pedialyte. When their digestive systems settle down, reintroduce bland foods like bananas, crackers, toast or rice cereal.

    Stomach bugs spread easily and fast. Washing hands carefully, cleaning up messes quickly and limiting physical contact with sick children can help keep other family members from catching the same thing.

    If your child’s symptoms worsen, if they are vomiting for more than 48 hours, if they have blood in their poop or they begin showing signs of dehydration (peeing less, sunken eyes, lightheadedness, inelastic skin) call your doctor right away.

Is it influenza?  
While influenza will suppress your child’s appetite it does not usually cause significant stomach upset. Like the common cold, influenza is an upper respiratory disease caused by a virus. Luckily, influenza can be prevented with a safe, effective annual vaccine. This is important, because influenza can cause dangerous complications like bronchitis and pneumonia—especially in infants, young children, seniors and pregnant women. Every single year, tens of thousands of people die from complications resulting from influenza.

If you suspect that your child has influenza, talk to your healthcare provider right away. Only a doctor can diagnose influenza. Like the common cold and stomach bug, your child will need plenty of fluids and plenty of rest, but they might need more than that. While most cases of influenza clear up on their own, your doctor may prescribe antiviral medications or antibiotics to treat your child’s illness. They will also encourage you to monitor your child’s symptoms closely and to seek treatment right away if those symptoms persist or worsen.

The best way to treat influenza is to prevent it. Make sure everyone in your family gets their flu shot every single year! You can get your flu shot at your physician’s office, at your local pharmacy or by visiting to find a flu clinic near you.

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