A child is being given a physical by a medical provider at the UI Health Care North Liberty pediatrics location

The signs are everywhere: It’s cold and flu season. “Cough into your arm.” “Cover your mouth.” “Stay home if you’re sick.”

Sometimes, though, respiratory illness is more serious than a cold or the flu and may require a visit to the doctor. Adults are usually able to discern when it’s best to make the trip, but children – especially smaller children – aren’t always able to let us know how they’re feeling.

Melanie Wellington, MD, PhD, is a pediatric infectious disease specialist at University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital. She offers the following suggestions as things parents and caregivers can look for in determining whether a child needs to be seen by a health care provider:

  • Fever of 101 degrees or higher in children under 3 months old;
  • Fever lasting longer than five days in children older than 3 months old;
  • Not willing to eat or drink;
  • A head cold that is getting better but then suddenly gets worse;
  • Severe head or chest pain;
  • Having a hard time breathing or having to work harder to breathe;
  • Frequently coughing up mucus from the chest or coughing up blood;
  • Fever and sore throat with no other symptoms
  • Fever of 102 degrees or higher in children under 3 years old who are not immunized

There are some at-home remedies you can try if you start seeing less serious symptoms, Wellington says. Those include using a humidifier in the room, sleeping propped up to prevent coughing, and using saline nasal drops or spray to decrease nasal congestion.

Although respiratory illness is common this time of year, there are things parents and caregivers can do to help prevent illness, Wellington says, including getting a flu shot.

“It’s not too late [to get a flu shot],” she says.

“Handwashing is also very important, including before preparing and before eating food,” she adds.

Practicing good “cough hygiene” is also important – cough into your elbow instead of into your hand or fist. Wellington also cautions people against going back to work or school too early – if a fever or bad cold is still present, she says it’s best to stay home.

“Plenty of rest and fluids – our mothers are right,” she says. “Mothers are almost always right.”

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