Colds, Fever and Flu: Getting the Facts Straight

young girl sick in bed

Now, more than ever before, children have an increased possibility of getting sick from a myriad of contagions.  

COVID-19 and other viruses and flues may present with similar symptoms, so it can be difficult to diagnose your child’s illness and administer the right treatment and medication.

In every case, a family doctor, physician or paediatrician will provide you with a professional, medical assessment.

Here is a list of the most prevalent childhood illnesses with medical definitions, signs and symptoms that I hope will take away some of the confusion.

young girl sick in bed

The Common Cold

The common cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract, nose and throat, which is usually harmless, although it may not feel that way to a child. 

Because there are more than 200 viruses that can cause a common cold, symptoms can vary.  Preschool children are at greatest risk of frequent colds but even healthy adults can expect to contract a couple of colds each year.  

Child blowing his nose

Symptoms of a common cold usually appear about one to three days after exposure to a cold-causing virus.  Most people recover from the common cold in about a week or two but if symptoms don't improve, see your doctor.

Common Cold signs and symptoms may include: runny or stuffy nose, itchy or sore throat, cough, congestion, slight body aches, a mild headache, sneezing, watery eyes, low-grade fever and mild fatigue.


For very young children and infants, a slightly elevated temperature may indicate the potential of a serious infection.

For an adult, a fever may be uncomfortable, but usually isn't dangerous unless it reaches 103 F (39.4 C) or higher.

A number of over-the-counter medications lower a fever, but sometimes it's better left untreated.  Fever seems to play a key role in helping your body fight off a number of infections.  To be on the safe side, consult your family physician.

sick child in bed with a teddy bear

“The average body temperature is 98.6 F (37 C), but normal body temperatures can range between 97 F (36.1 C) and 99 F (37.2 C) or more. Your body temperature can vary depending on how active you are or the time of day. Generally, older people have lower body temperatures than younger people,” says the Mayo Clinic.

mother and grandmother checking baby's temperature

Fever signs and symptoms may include: sweating, shivering, headache, muscle aches, loss of appetite, dehydration and general weakness. 

High fevers between 103 F (39.4 C) and 106 F (41.1 C) may cause: hallucinations, confusion, irritability, convulsions and dehydration.


Influenza, commonly called the flu, is an infection that attacks the respiratory system including the nose, throat and lungs.  Influenza is not the same as the stomach flu or stomach virus that causes diarrhea and vomiting.  

Influenza can cause severe inflammation of the lungs, which can lead to rapid respiratory failure and death.

To clearly define the difference between a virus and flu, the Mayo Clinic states the following:

“A viral infection that attacks the digestive system is commonly called a stomach virus. People sometimes call the illness,’stomach flu', although this name is misleading, as influenza attacks the respiratory system. A stomach virus can also be known as viral gastroenteritis. Different strains of the virus exist.”

Young children, older adults, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems and/or chronic illnesses are at higher risk of developing flu complications.  The best defence against influenza is to receive an annual vaccination.  

Initially, a flu may seem like a common cold with a runny nose, sneezing and sore throat but colds usually develop slowly, whereas the flu tends to come on suddenly.

teddy bear with kleenex, cough syrup and a thermometer

Although a cold can be a nuisance, you usually feel much worse with the flu.

Influenza signs and symptoms may include: fever over 100 F (38 C), aching muscles (especially in your back, arms and legs), chills and sweats, headache, dry cough, fatigue, weakness and nasal congestion.


doctor checking a child's lungs

Bronchitis is the inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes that carry air to and from your lungs.

Often developing from a cold or other respiratory infection, acute bronchitis is very common and usually improves within a few days without lasting effects, although a cough may continue for weeks after the bronchitis resolves.

Bronchitis signs and symptoms may include: cough, production of mucus (sputum that is clear, white, yellow, or green), fatigue, slight fever, chills and chest discomfort.


Pneumonia is inflammation of the lungs caused by infection such as bacteria, viruses, fungi or parasites. 

Pneumonia can range from mild to life threatening symptoms and is often a complication of another condition, such as flu with the onset of a cough and fever.  

parents taking a child's temperature

Antibiotics are used to treat most common forms of bacterial pneumonias, but antibiotic-resistant strains, such as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) are a growing problem.  The World Health Organization strongly advocates routine vaccination to prevent infections. 

Pneumonia signs and symptoms may include:  coughing; wheezing; fever; rapid, laboured breathing; sweating; shaking chills; chest pain that fluctuates with breathing (pleurisy); headache; muscle pain and fatigue.  Depending on the type and severity of infection, infants may also suffer convulsions, hypothermia, lethargy and feeding problems.

Facts about Pneumonia

2017 Global statistics according to UNICEF states that one child dies of pneumonia every 39 seconds.  2,200 children die of pneumonia every day.

Over 2 million children die from pneumonia each year globally.

Pneumonia is the leading cause of death among children under the age of 5.

Pneumonia kills more children than any other illness including AIDS, malaria and measles combined.

Globally, over 450 million adults contract pneumonia yearly.

Severe pneumonia leaves an estimated 4.2 million children under five-years-of-age in 124 low and middle income countries with critically low oxygen levels each year, as per new analysis from UNICEF.

Protect Your Children

Teach your children to cover their noses and mouths with a tissue. The tissue must then be discarded in a bin and hands thoroughly washed to help prevent the spread of germs.   If a tissue is not handy, teach your children how to use their elbows when they cough or sneeze. 

quote on teaching children to wash hands frequently

Teach your children to wash their hands before:

  • Eating their meals and snacks
  • Handling food or helping in the kitchen

Make sure children wash their hands after:

  • Playing with toys that were shared with other children
  • Contact with other people who are sick
  • Using the washroom facilities
  • Blowing their nose
  • Coughing or sneezing
  • Handling garbage
  • Visiting a public place
  • Petting an animal

The Method to Wash Hands Properly

  • Wet hands with warm running water
  • Put a small amount of liquid soap in the palm of one hand. (Bar soaps are not as hygienic because they attract germs)
  • Rub hands together for at least 15 seconds, bringing the soap to a lather
  • Rub each palm over the back of the other hand
washing hands
  • Scrub between fingers, under fingernails and on the back of your hands
  • Rub around each of your thumbs
  • Rinse hands well with running water for at least 10 seconds
  • Dry your hands with a clean or disposable towel

Tips to Fight the Flu

  • Ensure your children receive the annual flu shot between October and December.
  • Keep kids at home and away from crowds when they are sick.
  • Keep common surfaces in your home clean and sanitized.
  • Do not share personal items, food and drinks with people that are sick.

Additional Resources

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