May 19, 2015, 12:00:00 AM CDT Oct 15, 2023, 10:44:01 PM CDT

Sick with the flu: When to go to the ER

Recognize flu symptoms in children and know when to call the doctor or when to take your child to the hospital for flu

A guide to helping you fight the flu infographic A guide to helping you fight the flu infographic

When children experience flu symptoms, parents are often unsure when they should call the doctor or when to take their child to the hospital. Children with the flu can typically be treated at home with rest and fluids. A trip to the emergency room (ER) should not be necessary for most cases of the flu. However, there are certain warning signs parents can watch for to know when to seek medical attention.

When should I take my child to the hospital for flu?

Children of all ages should be taken to the ER for flu if they experience any of the following emergency warning signs:

  • Have shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Become unresponsive
  • Suffer from excessive vomiting
  • Appear dehydrated with decreased urination, or have dry lips or sunken eyes

If you have a newborn, look for these additional warning signs and seek medical help if they:

  • Are not eating
  • Have fever, trouble breathing or a color change
  • Cry without tears or have significantly fewer wet diapers

It’s important to know that for children older than 2 months, a fever by itself is not an indication to take a child to the ER. If your child has a fever that gets better with acetaminophen or ibuprofen, that’s an indication that the child does not need to go to the ER.

Parents can help reduce exposure to flu and other illnesses by limiting the number of family members who accompany a sick child to the ER. Healthy children and relatives should remain at home.

If my child has the flu, when should I call the doctor?

The flu can usually be treated at home with rest and liquids, but occasionally children can experience serious complications from the flu. If you are concerned about your child’s flu symptoms, but they are not emergency warning signs, contact your pediatrician first as they know your child’s medical history and specific needs. If your child is lethargic, has a fever for more than three days or is having trouble taking liquids, contact your doctor.

How long does the flu last in children?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), if your child has the flu, they are contagious as early as one day before symptoms develop – and up to five to seven days after.

Parents can help avoid sickness and a trip to the ER by ensuring everyone in their family older than 6 months receives a flu shot. See more ways to prevent and treat the flu to keep your entire family healthy during flu season.

Learn more

Children's Health Primary Care offers comprehensive health care for children from birth through young adulthood. Our pediatricians combine quality care with evidence-based practice to meet your child’s medical needs. Learn more and find a pediatrician.

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