Flu (influenza)

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Key points to remember

  • the flu (influenza) can be a serious and sometimes life-threatening viral infection
  • it is not the same as having a bad cold
  • flu is very infectious (catching) so good hygiene is very important to reduce spread
  • even if your child is fit and healthy, they can easily catch the flu
  • yearly flu immunisation offers the best protection
  • keep infected children away from other people and don't send your child to day care or school if they have the flu
  • contact your doctor if you are concerned about the severity of your child's symptoms, they are under 12 months old, or have a chronic (long-lasting) medical condition

See flu immunisation on this website.

What is it?

Influenza, commonly called 'the flu', is an infection caused by the influenza virus. It affects the nose, throat, lungs and other parts of the body. The flu can be a serious and sometimes life-threatening infection. It infects many people every year, mostly during the winter months in New Zealand.

What are the signs and symptoms?

Flu in children usually causes at least two or three of the following symptoms:

  • a fever that starts suddenly (a temperature equal to or greater than 38 degrees Celsius)
  • body aches or pains
  • headache
  • dry cough which may become moist,
  • sore throat
  • low energy or fatigue
  • chills or shivering
  • runny or stuffy nose

Sometimes people confuse a cold with the flu. But with the flu, people are generally more unwell and flu symptoms may last longer.

Occasionally, flu can cause serious illness. This depends on the type of virus and a child's age and general health. The flu can be more serious in children who also have a long-lasting (chronic) disease. Your doctor can provide more advice if this is the case with your child. 

How easy to catch (contagious) is the flu?

The flu virus is very easily spread and anyone can catch it - it doesn't matter how fit and healthy your child is.

It can spread through the air by coughing and sneezing as well as by hands, cups and other objects that have been in contact with an infected person's mouth or nose.

Can I do anything to prevent my child catching the flu?

Flu immunisation offers the best protection. For more information, see the following fact sheet on this website:

The following will also reduce the risk of catching the flu:

  • make sure everyone in your family washes their hands regularly and thoroughly, including (but not only) before preparing food and eating. Make sure everyone dries them well too. Soap and water for 20 seconds, then 20 seconds drying. Or use a hand sanitiser
  • use a tissue to cover coughs and sneezes and then put it in the rubbish bin (and then wash and dry hands)
  • regularly clean surfaces in the bathroom and the kitchen
  • stay away from people who are sick. Keep your distance - at least one metre
  • if your child becomes sick, keep them at home and don't send them to school or day care until they are well
  • if you become sick – stay at home, don't go to work

What is the treatment for the flu?

Most children fight off the infection by themselves.

Antiviral medicines (such as Tamiflu) are not normally given to children who are otherwise fit and healthy.

This type of medicine is generally most effective if taken within the first 48 hours of the first symptoms. It may reduce the severity of your child's symptoms and the length of time they have the flu. It is not a cure.

Antibiotics are not helpful for the flu and your doctor won't prescribe them unless your child also has a bacterial infection.

Never give your child or young person aspirin as this may increase the risk of Reye syndrome, which is a rare and serious illness.

Continue with your child's usual medications (such as those for asthma and diabetes).

How can I care for my child at home?

  • give paracetamol for pain or discomfort if needed. You must follow the dosage instructions on the bottle. It is dangerous to give more than the recommended dose
  • never give your child aspirin as this may increase the risk of Reye syndrome, whihc is a rare and serious illness

  • see How do I treat a fever? in the fever fact sheet on this website
  • give them drinks (water, fruit juice or milk) often. (If your child will not take fluids or is drowsy, don't force it. Seek medical or health professional advice immediately)
  • use saltwater drops (saline) to treat a stuffy nose
  • keep your child at home and resting until they are well

When should I seek help?

Contact your doctor if you think your child has the flu and: 

  • is less than 12 months old
  • was born prematurely and is less than two years old
  • has been in hospital within the last three months
  • has a long-lasting (chronic) condition such as heart disease, cystic fibrosis or other chronic lung condition, asthma, diabetes, an organ transplant, cancer or leukaemia

You should see a doctor urgently if your child of any age:

  • has trouble feeding or is not drinking enough fluids
  • is not weeing as normal (for babies, their nappies remain dry or there are fewer than three wet nappies in 24 hours)
  • is severely irritable and is not wanting to be held
  • improves and then suddenly becomes worse
  • doesn't seem to be improving or you are concerned for any reason

Dial 111 within New Zealand for urgent medical help (use the appropriate emergency number in other countries) if your child:

  • becomes floppy or more drowsy than usual or is difficult to wake
  • has trouble breathing (breathing is fast or noisy)
  • has blue lips

Where to go for more information

On this website
Flu Immunisation

Ministry of Health www.health.govt.nz
See the Ministry of Health website for:

This page last reviewed 11 April 2013
© Paediatric Society of New Zealand and Starship Foundation 2005 – 2015
Printed on 27 April 2015. Content is regularly updated so please refer to www.kidshealth.org.nz for the most up-to-date version
Content endorsed by the Paediatric Society of New Zealand