Influenza1, or what we commonly refer to as ‘the flu’, is an illness caused by viruses that occur mostly in the winter months in South Africa. It is easily confused with the common cold, which is also a winter illness caused by viruses. The flu and colds are caused by different viruses.
Flu and colds spread easily from person to person through droplets that are distributed through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes or, quite commonly, through hand-to-hand contact.
Viruses that cause influenza can infect the nose, throat, sinuses, upper airways and lungs. There are three types of flu viruses: types A, B and C. You may be infected with any combination of the viruses in the same season, even, although not often, at the same time.
Signs and Symptoms
To begin it is important to understand the difference between signs and symptoms:
Signs are those things which you can see or feel on a child or adult that shows that s/he is not well. For example you can see snot coming out of your child’s nose; your child doesn’t eat as much as usual or won’t eat all and feels hot. If your child feels hot you can check this sign further by measuring your child’s temperature with a thermometer.
Symptoms are the things that an unwell person or child tell you about. Such as; I have a headache, I feel hot (or cold), my throat hurts or I feel nauseas.
Babies cannot tell us their symptoms in words and young children will struggle while they are still learning to talk and learning new words. So it is important to be able to understand the signs of illness in babies and young children.
Signs and Symptoms of flu
• High fever (often higher than 39°C) in children with chills
• Dry cough
• Blocked nose or nasal discharge
• Sweating and shivering
• Children often vomit and have diarrhoea
• Feeling generally unwell
• Fatigue and wanting to sleep all day
• Sore throat
• Muscle aches and pains, especially in the legs
Influenza and Complications
Influenza is more serious than a common cold and sometimes complications can result from having the flu. Some of these complications are:
• Secondary bacterial pneumonia, which needs treatment with antibiotics
• Middle ear infections (otitis media) in children are in most cases caused by the virus itself and it is not a secondary bacterial infection, so antibiotics are seldom necessary.
• Children may also develop croup (a viral infection of the vocal cords and large main airways) as a result of the flu.
General supportive treatment
Treating the flu is similar to treating a cold. When your child has the flu make sure s/he stays in bed, rests and drinks plenty of liquids. Over the counter treatments for children from your pharmacist will only help ease the symptoms, but they will not cure the actual influenza virus.
When should you take your child to a doctor?
• If the fever lasts longer than two days.
• If your child continues to feel sick and just doesn’t seem to get better.
• If your child begins to cough up phlegm
• If there are any signs of the complications related to the flu
• If your child has difficulty breathing or has pain when breathing
Reviewed by Dr Jane Yeats, Department of Virology, University of Cape Town 2006
Updated and reviewed by Dr Jean Maritz and Dr Leana Maree, medical virologists, Tygerberg Hospital and University of Stellenbosch 2010