Tag: flu

How Long Are You Contagious When You Have the Flu?

Do your kids have the flu?

When their kids have the flu, one of the first questions most parents have, after all of the ones about how they can get them better as quickly as possible, is how long will they be contagious?

How Long Is the Flu Contagious?

Technically, when you have the flu, you are contagious for about a week after becoming sick.

And you become sick about one to four days after being exposed to someone else with the flu – that’s the incubation period.

“Most experts believe that flu viruses spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby. Less often, a person might also get flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth, eyes or possibly their nose.”

CDC on Information for Schools

That’s why the flu spreads so easily and it is hard to control flu outbreaks and epidemics once they begin.

Most school closures are not to prevent the spread of the flu and clean the school, but simply because so many kids and staff are already out sick.
Most school closures are not to prevent the spread of the flu and clean the school, but simply because so many kids and staff are already out sick.

Another reason it spreads so easily is that most people are contagious the day before they even begin to develop flu symptoms!

And again, they then remain contagious for another five to seven days.

When Can You Return to School with the Flu?

Does that mean kids with the flu have to stay home for at least seven days?

Not usually, unless they have a fever for that long, or severe flu symptoms, which is definitely a possibility for some kids with the flu.

“Those who get flu-like symptoms at school should go home and stay home until at least 24 hours after they no longer have a fever or signs of a fever without the use of fever-reducing medicine.”

CDC on Information for Schools

In general, as with many other childhood illnesses, you can return to school or daycare once your child is feeling better and is fever free for at least 24 hours.

Keep in mind that even if they don’t have a fever, if your child still isn’t feeling well and isn’t going to be able to participate in typical activities, then they should probably still stay home.

But Are They Still Contagious?

Many childhood diseases have contagious periods that are far longer than most folks imagine. That’s because we continue to shed viral particles even as we are getting better, and sometimes, even once we no longer have symptoms.

Teach your kids proper cough etiquette to help keep cold and flu germs from spreading.
Teach your kids proper cough etiquette to help keep cold and flu germs from spreading.

For example, some infants with rotavirus are contagious for up to 10 days and some with RSV are contagious for as long as 4 weeks!

Like the child with flu that doesn’t have a fever, that doesn’t mean that these kids have to stay out of school or daycare for that whole time. But since they are still contagious, it does raise the issue of what to do about non-essential activities.

Should you keep going to playdates after your child had the flu? How about the daycare at church or the gym?

In general, you should probably avoid non-essential activities while your kids are still recovering from an illness, even if they feel better, because they are likely still contagious.

Most parents have the expectation that their own kids won’t be exposed to someone who is sick in these settings.

So you probably don’t want to bring your sick kid to a playdate or birthday party, etc., even if he is already back in school or daycare.

And whether they have a cold or the flu or another illness, teach your kids to decrease their chances of getting sick by washing their hands properly, not sharing drinks (bring a water bottle to school), and properly covering their own coughs and sneezes. They should also learn to avoid putting things in the mouth (fingers or their pencil, etc.) or rubbing their eyes, as that helps germs that could have made their way onto their hands get into their body and make them sick.

What to Know About Staying Home When You Have the Flu

Although your child may be contagious with the flu for up to a week, your child only has to stay home from school or day care until they are feeling better and are fever free for at least 24 hours.

More About Staying Home When You Have the Flu


Warning Signs of a Severe Case of the Flu

We all know the classic signs and symptoms of the flu.

They can include the sudden onset of:

  • fever
  • chills
  • cough and chest discomfort
  • headaches
  • fatigue
  • body aches
  • runny nose
  • sore throat

And these symptoms usually last a few days to a few weeks, with the worst of them lasting about five to seven days.

Warning Signs of a Severe Case of the Flu

But what if you don’t just have a classic case of the flu.

While many of the stories of this being the worst flu season are media hype, the flu is always dangerous and this is a severe flu season.

That makes it important to be able to recognize severe flu symptoms or signs that someone with the flu needs immediate medical attention, including:

  • having trouble breathing or fast breathing
  • being unable to eat and drink and getting dehydrated (dry mouth, urinating less, or fewer wet diapers, etc.)
  • not waking up easily
  • being inconsolable or so irritable that your child does not even want to be held
  • having chest pain
  • is suddenly dizzy
  • being confused
  • having seizures
  • having severe vomiting

You should also seek medical attention if your child was getting better, but then got worse again, especially if they again develop a fever and a worsening cough. Or if your child has a chronic health problem, like asthma or diabetes, and the flu is making it hard to control.

How will your child be treated? It depends, on treatments might include oxygen, IV fluids, antiviral medications, and antibiotics (if there is a secondary bacterial infection), etc.

And remember that children under the age of two to five years and those with chronic health conditions, such as asthma, diabetes, neurologic and neuromuscular conditions, and heart disease, etc., are most at risk for severe flu complications.

In four of the last deadliest flu seasons, at least half of the kids had no underlying medical conditions.
In four of the last deadliest flu seasons, at least half of the kids had no underlying medical conditions.

But you don’t have to be at high risk to develop flu complications.

Many of the kids who die with the flu each year don’t have any underlying health problems.

And at least half of the kids who die with flu complications are school age children and teens.

Anyone, even previously healthy kids, can develop pneumonia, myocarditis, encephalitis, or septic shock, etc., so get help if you see any of the above signs and symptoms that your child with the flu is getting worse.

And get your kids vaccinated. Tragically, most kids who die with the flu each year didn’t have a flu shot.

What to Know About the Warning Signs of a Severe Case of the Flu

Seek medical attention if your child’s flu symptoms are getting worse, especially if it seemed they were getting better, but then got worse again, which can all be signs of complications of a severe flu case.

More on the Warning Signs of a Severe Case of the Flu

Treating the Flu and Hard to Control Flu Symptoms

It is much easier to prevent the flu with a flu shot than to try and treat the flu after you get sick.
It is much easier to prevent the flu with a flu shot than to try and treat the flu after you get sick.

Unfortunately, like most upper respiratory tract infections, the flu is not easy to treat.

What are Flu Symptoms?

While a cold and the flu can have similar symptoms, those symptoms are generally more intense and come on more quickly when you have the flu.

These flu symptoms can include the sudden onset of:

  • fever and chills
  • dry cough
  • chest discomfort
  • runny nose or stuffy nose
  • sore throat
  • headache
  • body aches
  • feelings of fatigue

And more rarely, vomiting and diarrhea.

In contrast, cold symptoms come on more gradually and are more likely to include sneezing, stuffy nose, sore throat, and mild to moderate coughing. A cold is also less likely to include a headache, fatigue, chills, or aches. And while either might have fever, it will be more low grade with a cold.

As with other infections, flu symptoms can be very variable. While some people might have a high fever, chills, body aches, constant coughing, and can hardly get out of bed, others might have a low grade fever and much milder symptoms.

That variability also applies to how long the flu symptoms might last. Some people are sick for a good 7 to 10 days, while others start to feel better in just a few days.

Treating Flu Symptoms

Although there aren’t many good treatments for the flu, that variability in flu symptoms makes it hard to even know if any you try really work.

For kids older than 4 to 6 years and adults, you could treat symptoms as necessary, including the use of decongestants and cough suppressants.

And of course, almost everyone might benefit from pain and fever relievers, drinking extra fluids, and rest, etc.

Treating the Flu

In addition to symptomatic flu treatments, there are also antiviral drugs that can actually help treat your flu infection.

These flu medications include oseltamivir (Tamiflu), zanmivir (Relenza), and peramivir (Rapivab). Of these, oral Tamiflu is the most commonly used. It can also be used to prevent the flu if taken before or soon after you are exposed to someone with the flu.

“If liquid Tamiflu is not available and you have capsules that give the right dose (30 mg, 45 mg or 75 mg), you may pull open the Tamiflu capsules and mix the powder with a small amount of sweetened liquid such as regular or sugar-free chocolate syrup. You don’t have to use chocolate syrup but thick, sweet liquids work best at covering up the taste of the medicine.”

FDA – Tamiflu: Consumer Questions and Answers

Unfortunately, these flu drugs are not like antibiotics you might take for a bacterial infection. You don’t take Tamiflu and begin to feel better in day or two. Instead, if you take it within 48 hours of the start of your flu symptoms, you might “shorten the duration of fever and illness symptoms, and may reduce the risk of complications from influenza.”

At best, you are likely only going to shorten your flu symptoms by less than a day. And considering the possible side effects of these medications and their cost, they are often reserved for high risk patients, including:

  • children who are less than 2 years old
  • adults who are at least 65 years old or older
  • anyone with chronic medical problems, including asthma, diabetes, seizures, muscular dystrophy, morbid obesity, immune system problems, and those receiving long-term aspirin therapy, etc.
  • pregnant and postpartum women
  • anyone who is hospitalized with the flu
  • anyone with severe flu symptoms

That means that most older children and teens who are otherwise healthy, but have the flu, don’t typically need a prescription for Tamiflu. The current recommendations don’t rule out treating these kids though.

“Antiviral treatment also can be considered for any previously healthy, symptomatic outpatient not at high risk with confirmed or suspected influenza on the basis of clinical judgment, if treatment can be initiated within 48 hours of illness onset.”

Antiviral Agents for the Treatment and Chemoprophylaxis of Influenza – Recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP)

There is a lot of controversy surrounding the use of Tamiflu and other anti-viral flu medications, with some studies and many experts thinking that they should rarely be used, if ever, stating that they are not as useful as others claim. Others state that while they not perfect, they are all we have, and there is enough evidence to recommend their use.

Treating Hard to Control Flu Symptoms

Instead of learning about treating hard to control flu symptoms, which might require medical attention, it is probably much more important to learn how to recognize these severe flu symptoms that might be hard to control.

Your child’s flu might be getting worse and require quick medical attention if you notice:

  • fast or hard breathing
  • complaints of chest pain
  • that it is hard to wake up your child
  • irritability to the point that your child is not consolable
  • signs of dehydration because your child won’t drink any fluids
  • that your child is complaining of being dizzy or is feeling lightheaded

You might also need to seek medical attention if your child with the flu was getting better, but then worsens again, with the return of a fever and more severe coughing, etc.

What to Know About Treating the Flu and Flu Symptoms

In addition to basic symptomatic care for your child’s flu symptoms, including the fever, cough, and runny nose, etc., Tamiflu can be an option to treat high risk kids with the flu.

And remember that it is recommended that everyone who is at least six months old should get a yearly flu vaccine.

More Information on Treating Hard to Control Flu Symptoms