Cold, Flu, or COVID-19? A Parent’s Guide
By Tracey Dowdy
Fears of a ‘twindemic’ – flu season colliding with COVID-19 – have led health professionals to encourage families to get their flu shot this year. Even a mild flu season has the potential to overwhelm hospitals struggling to cope with the recent surge in Covid-19 cases. Though there are still unknowns, officials are concerned large numbers of people will skip their flu shot this year in anticipation of getting the COVID-19 vaccine, increasing the risk of mass flu outbreaks.
As parents, it can be difficult to discern among common childhood illnesses like allergies, a common cold, or tummy bug. Factor in the flu, and now, COVID-19, and determining why your child is sick can feel overwhelming.
This guide can help you prepare for the upcoming flu season, know what to do if your child is exposed to a virus, and which symptoms are important to watch for.
In the words of the once king of the pride lands, Scar, be prepared. Pandemic fatigue is a real thing. Many families are exhausted by the strain of parenting, homeschooling, working from home, and supporting extended family and friends, albeit from a distance. Couple this with the holiday season, and the temptation to let your guard down rises. As a family, have a conversation about the importance of sticking to the guidelines as best as you are able. Take some of the stress of the unknown out by determining your plan B – or C, or D – should you be called back to in-person work, your child care falls through, or virtual schooling is extended. Make sure to wear masks, use proper handwashing techniques, and practice social distancing whenever possible.
Watch for unusual symptoms.
Dr. Eric Robinette, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Akron Children’s Hospital in Ohio, says even doctors struggle to diagnose the different illnesses without testing. “It’s pretty much impossible, honestly, to tell the difference (between flu and COVID). Cough, runny nose, sore throat — those are all shared by both viruses, so without doing testing, it’s pretty hard to tell.” He recommends that if there’s any concern about which condition might affect your child – cold, flu, allergies, COVID-19 – it’s essential to keep them at home. The only significant difference between the flu and coronavirus is the loss of taste and smell. If your child has symptoms like fever, dry cough, or loss of senses, get them tested as soon as possible, though there’s no need to panic.
Know when and where to be tested.
Testing options and positive COVID-19 test results vary depending on where you live. If you’re unsure whether your child has the flu or coronavirus, it’s better to start with the COVID-19 test as it is the more restrictive of the two should your child test positive. Remember, coronavirus has a long incubation period, so some individuals may not start showing symptoms for up to 14 days. “If I test you five days after you’re exposed to somebody with COVID and you’re negative then, I can tell you you don’t have COVID right now, but I can’t tell you that you’re not going to have it tomorrow because you could be incubating the virus,” Robinette says. He recommends maintaining a two-week isolation period after the exposure, even if the patient remains asymptomatic.
Record details of the illness.
Though it may seem excessive, if your child tests positive, having relevant information like when the symptoms first appeared, places you’ve been, and who you may have exposed, will help with contact tracing and potentially reduce the number of others who will be exposed. It’s unnecessary to inform your contacts if you have the flu, though it’s entirely at your discretion, Robinette says. However, it’s still a good idea to quarantine, though the timeline may change depending on when your child started showing symptoms.
Family practice physician Dr. Kristin Dean says, “If the child becomes sick, that sort of resets the clock. Then we think about the timeline in a different way … and we start a 10-day clock for symptoms. …Ten days after the onset of symptoms, you have to be without a fever for at least 24 hours, and you have to be feeling better. Those are the criteria that we look for to confirm the end of illness.”
Be prepared. Again.
Knowing that there’s the potential to be quarantined, it’s a good idea to stock up on basic remedies like children’s and adult acetaminophen, hydrating liquids like Pedialyte or Gatorade, and tissues. Do your best to keep the patient isolated from the rest of the family, wear a mask when you’re near them, wash your hands often, don’t touch your face, and sanitize anything that goes in or comes out of their room to limit the risk of the virus spreading to another family member.
If in doubt or if your child’s symptoms seem to be worsening, seek medical attention immediately.
Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits, and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.