These days, the appearance of symptoms like sore throat, cough, sneezing, and stuffy nose in your child attract more concern than ever before. Most parents may have trouble telling a common cold apart from the flu or COVID-19. This is because both are respiratory illnesses that viruses cause, making them similar to each other.
Since they have common symptoms, an untrained eye may not be able to tell the difference. However, there are key differences among these illnesses that parents can quickly identify to tell which sickness a child is suffering from. Here are some things to keep in mind, especially when your child is experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above.
Cold vs Flu vs CoVID in Children: What’s the Difference?
The symptoms of the common cold in children are usually mild. They’ll often experience a tickle in their throat, a stuffy or runny nose, itchy or watery eyes, and sneezing. The symptoms typically peak within 2-3 days of infections. While the child may have a normal appetite and go about their daily activities, they could be carrying a fever.
In general, there is no diagnostic test for the common cold nor any specific treatment. Your child’s kid doctor or virtual pediatrician can offer treatment to alleviate the symptoms, but the cold will often run its course.
Other flu symptoms include a sore throat, runny nose, cough, belly pain, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea.
Children sick with the flu also experience mild symptoms, although these sometimes progress to severe discomfort. They can feel worse than when they have a cold. To tell whether it is a cold or the flu, check for the rapid onset of symptoms in your child.
After your child has the flu, they will experience physical signs such as cough, fever, chills, headache, and body aches, among many others. In addition, they will undergo extreme exhaustion and have little appetite. By doing a flu virus test, a doctor can identify the flu.
However, most kids with the flu get better at home with plenty of liquids and rest. Others may get very ill and need treatment in the hospital. Antiviral medicine can ease flu symptoms, but be sure to consult their board-certified pediatrician first. Finally, flu vaccines and flu shots can drastically decrease your child’s chances of catching the virus.
In most cases, the symptoms of COVID-19 are similar to those from colds and the flu. However, in some cases, kids that coronavirus infects may not show any outward signs at all. This situation can easily confuse you and other parents when trying to diagnose your child at home. Thankfully, COVID-19 has a distinctive symptom that colds and the flu do not have: a loss of taste or smell.
Influenza viruses cause the flu while a type of coronavirus causes COVID-19. To confirm if the illness has made your child sick, doctors recommend having them take a COVID-19 test. They can also check for a past infection by taking a blood sample to test for antibodies. As of now, doctors cannot prescribe treatment for COVID-19 since there is none.
Generally, children who have COVID-19 get better at home with plenty of liquids and rest. Some kids do get very ill and may need to go to the hospital for proper medical care. If your children get infected, contact your child’s primary care provider or the Children’s COVID-19 Help Line at 402-955-3200 to get appropriate medical advice and further guidance.
Symptom Timing/Incubation Period
To help differentiate the condition your child is experiencing, you should check the timing of the symptoms you observe. Each has a different incubation period, which is how long it takes signs to appear after exposure. If you suspect COVID-19, it is essential that the infected individual stays indoors and isolated from others.
Cold: 24 – 72 hours
Flu: 1 – 4 days
COVID-19: 2 – 14 days, with an average of 5 days
If they must come very close to others, they should always wear a mask. Thankfully, COVID-19 vaccines are now available nationwide and globally for people aged 12 and older. For younger children, you should rely on the advice and prescription of your provider. Studies are still ongoing to ascertain if the vaccine is okay for younger kids.
Symptoms of Other Common Respiratory Illnesses
Parents should look out for other common respiratory illnesses, including respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), multisystem inflammatory syndrome, and allergies, aside from COVID-19 and the flu.
What is RSV?
RSV is a viral illness that mostly affects young children and causes difficulty in breathing. RSV is very common in kids, with nearly all children experiencing an RSV infection by their second birthday. Respiratory syncytial virus infection is usually most severe at the second infection. Children born with heart problems prematurely or breathing problems most often experience RSV infection complications.
The symptoms of an RSV infection generally include:
- Runny nose
- Poor appetite
- Breathing difficulties
- Decreased activity
These symptoms usually appear 4-6 days after exposure in different stages.
Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C)
Another illness parents should be on the lookout for is MIS-C, which rarely develops in some children 3-4 to weeks after being infected with or exposed to COVID-19. While not all children show similar symptoms, kids with MIS-C generally experience:
- Abdominal pain
- Bloodshot eyes
- Neck pain
- Weakness, fatigue
What can you do if your child has symptoms like these? Contact your child’s primary health care provider immediately or 911 if the situation becomes life-threatening.
What Can I Do If My Child Becomes Sick?
If you ever have any doubts about whether your child has a cold, the flu, or COVID-19, you need to seek a pediatrician, whether in-person or with Pediatric Telemedicine. Symptoms such as a fever may simply be the common cold but could also point to more serious conditions. If your child ever becomes sick with signs that cause you to suspect the flu or COVID-19, we recommend getting a certified medical opinion.
You should call your doctor if you observe:
- High fever
- Difficulty breathing
- Lack of energy
- Severe belly pain
- Chest pain
- Bluish lips or face
As a precautionary measure against infections and these symptoms, parents should encourage their family in daily cleanliness. Kids should wash their hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water or use a hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol. Everyone should stay away from sick people and clean frequently used surfaces like doorknobs, counters, and phones.
Our Virtual Pediatricians Know the Flu, Colds, and COVID-19
You may have cause for concern when your child falls ill with symptoms that could mean more than a regular cold. If you witness your kids become worse than they were before with signs you thought were harmless, it is incredibly frightening. However, the key differences between colds, the flu, and COVID-19 in this article will help you better identify these conditions.
We have a team of board-certified pediatricians that have professional experience seeing kids with all three illnesses. Our doctors understand how to diagnose them correctly and recommend the best treatments for your child. If you ever have questions about flu, cold, and COVID-19 symptoms, we can answer them by calling (888).961.8885.