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flu; influenza; cold; epidemic; pandemic; immunise; immunisation; vaccine; vaccination; immunization; reye's; reye; syndrome; bird; swine ;

Many people are unsure whether they have a cold or influenza (the flu). The flu is quite different to a cold. It lasts longer and people are usually much more unwell with it. The flu is caused by a few slightly different types of influenza viruses, while colds are caused by many different viruses.


  • Influenza is an illness that usually starts quite suddenly, about 1 to 3 days after a person is in contact with someone who has the infection.
  • Children and adults with the flu often feel very unwell, and develop a fever, headache, body aches and loss of appetite. They have a runny nose, cough and chills (they feel very cold and shivery even though their temperature is high).
  • The viruses causing flu often change a little, so that people who have had flu before may not be protected by their immune system, and can get flu again.
  • In most years there are outbreaks of flu in winter which can affect 5% to 10% of the population (epidemics). In 'closed' groups, such as families or school classes, many more children and adults may become unwell.
  • Several times a century, the viruses change a lot and cause a very large number of people worldwide to become unwell (this is called a pandemic). In 1918-1919, an estimated 40 to 50 million people died from influenza. Other pandemics occurred in 1957-1958 and 1968-1969 and 2009 ('Swine flu').

For more information about influenza, including symptoms and prevention of the spread of influenza have a look at the

Better Health Channel 

SA Health


What you can do

  • Children with influenza may be quite ill for several days and they should be seen by a doctor early, or if they get worse. (Because they will also be infectious if they are coughing, tell your doctor's receptionist - they may be able to give you an appointment when few other people will be there).
  • The aim of looking after a child with the flu is to make the child as comfortable as possible, and prevent the spread of infection.
  • Do not send a child who may have the flu to school, preschool or child care.
  • While they have a fever, children should rest. Paracetamol can be given for high fever, sore throat and headache (see the topic Using paracetamol or ibuprofen). Do not give children aspirin as it may trigger a very serious illness called Reye's syndrome.
  • Extra drinks should be given (eg breastfeeds, water, diluted fruit juice, milk).
  • Soft, cool foods may help children to eat if they have a sore throat.
  • Children often don't want to eat during influenza. This is not a problem if they continue to drink well; they will get back any lost weight quickly when they are over the flu.
  • Some anti-viral medications have been developed, but most people will not need them.
  • Antibiotics are only of use if a child develops another infection due to the flu, such as an ear infection or pneumonia.
  • After the symptoms go, it is better to take things slowly for a while (especially avoid vigorous exercise) because the child will get tired easily, and (very rarely) the infection may have harmed the heart.

The topic Feeling sick has suggestions for caring for a sick child.

Immunisation against influenza

  • A new influenza vaccine is produced each year because of the changes that happen to the virus, and people need to have their 'flu shots' each year.

Better Health Channel 

Pregnant women and women are urged to be immunised against influenza.

SA Health (South Australia):

For more information about immunisation see National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). Australian Immunisation Handbook, 10thth Edition 2013'.

  • While only certain groups of people in Australia can get free vaccine, any person can be immunised but there may be a charge for the vaccine.

Resources and further reading



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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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