Do Flu Symptoms Differ by Age?

Do Flu Symptoms Differ by Age?

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Find out how flu symptoms might affect kids, younger adults and older adults differently.

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A person holds the back of their hand to a sleeping child's forehead.

FEB. 8, 2023   5 MINUTE READ

A variety of factors affect how your body responds to the influenza virus. But did you know you might be more or less susceptible to the miseries of the flu depending on your age and stage of life? This article will break down how children, younger adults and older adults may respond to the flu differently and what you can do to minimize your risk of serious complications from this virus.

Typical Flu Symptoms

Unlike the common cold, which comes on gradually and is generally mild, the onset of flu is typically sudden. Its symptoms can be similar to COVID-19 symptoms, and it may be impossible to tell the difference without testing. They can vary somewhat depending on a person's age, but typical flu symptoms include:

  • Fever lasting 3-4 days
  • Chills
  • Body aches
  • Cough
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue
  • Runny or stuffy nose

Flu in Kids

Children's immune systems don't fully develop until they're 7 to 8 years old. Kids are also still learning to cover their coughs and sneezes and often forget to wash their hands without a reminder. They also tend to spend time together in large groups at childcare or school.

These factors make it easier for the flu virus to spread among children. Research shows young children are more likely than any other age group to become sick with the flu, with a median of 13% of young children (up to 4 years old) compared to 8% among 5- to 17-year-olds and just 7% among 18- to 49-year-olds.

When it comes to flu symptoms in kids, vomiting and diarrhea are more common in children than adults. Children's fevers also tend to run higher with the flu, climbing as high as 103-105 degrees Fahrenheit. If you have concerns about your child's symptoms, don't hesitate to call your pediatrician.

Flu in Younger Adults

Generally, younger adults have the most robust immune systems of the three age categories. About 7% of adults ages 18-49 have flu symptoms each year. They're also the least likely to get an annual flu shot.

Younger adults tend to have typical symptoms with the flu, but with this demographic, it's important to consider their environment when evaluating the risk of flu. People in early adulthood may still be attending school and living in dorms or other housing where they're likely to be exposed to a large number of people on a daily basis. This increases their odds of encountering someone who is sick with the flu.

Any adults who are parents are also more likely to be exposed to the flu — and many other germs — if their child attends childcare or school. Teachers, healthcare workers and other people who regularly come into contact with children and sick people are at higher risk for flu exposure as well.

Flu in Older Adults

If an older adult comes down with the flu, they're more likely to become hospitalized or die from flu-related complications than either kids or younger adults. But people over age 65 are the most likely age group to get the flu vaccine and therefore the least likely to develop the flu, with an annual flu rate of just under 4%.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that adults over 65 years old get higher-dose flu vaccines because of their increased effectiveness in senior citizens. Older adults living in assisted living or long-term care facilities may be particularly vulnerable to flu exposure due to increased contact with people on a routine basis, from visitors to facility staff.

Older adults with flu may have dizziness, confusion or exacerbated symptoms of existing heart or lung disease, such as shortness of breath. Older adults are less likely to have a fever with the flu than younger people.

Preventing the Spread of Flu

In general, flu spreads when an infected person talks, coughs or sneezes and another person breathes in the affected air. To a lesser extent, flu spreads when an infected person touches a surface after touching their eyes, nose or mouth and someone else comes along and touches that same surface and then their own eyes, nose or mouth.

The flu can also spread directly from a flu-infected person's hands to another person's hands, such as when shaking hands with someone who has recently coughed or sneezed.

Flu viruses can live on hard surfaces for up to 48 hours. Regular cleaning and disinfecting is important, especially if someone you live or work with is coughing or sneezing. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water before eating or drinking and after sneezing, coughing or touching your face. Consider covering your sneezes with the crook of your elbow rather than with your hands to further help prevent the spread of germs.

Nutrition and Flu

Prevention is the best medicine, and healthy, balanced meals full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein foods can help keep your immune system in tip-top shape. With good nutrition, daily exercise and a flu shot, you may be able to avoid the flu altogether. If you do come down with the flu, keep these tips in mind:

  • Stay hydrated. Fever, vomiting or diarrhea can lead to mild dehydration. When feeling bad during the flu, it's easy to get behind on enough daily fluids. If dehydration strikes while you're down, consider including an electrolyte drink such as Pedialyte®  to replenish fluid and electrolytes. Frozen Pedialyte® pops may be a more appealing option for those with nausea or a fever, and they're a fun option for kids. As always, consult your doctor about the proper hydration regime for you and your kids while sick.

  • Eat small meals. The common phrase, "starve a fever, feed a cold" is not quite right. "Feed a fever, feed a cold" is better. Your body needs energy to fight off infection, so if a full meal doesn't appeal to you, try eating several small, easily digestible mini-meals throughout the day while you're feeling under the weather. Soups, stews and smoothies often are tolerated well.

No matter how old you are, to help prevent flu symptoms, stay in good physical shape by eating well and exercising, get a flu shot and wash your hands well and often.

Staying Hydrated When Sick: 5 Ways to Help Your Child Get Enough Fluids

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A child lies in bed drinking out of a red cup.


When your child is sick, it's natural to worry about them — especially if they're not drinking as much as you know they should be. But it can be difficult to know whether your child is taking in enough fluids to replenish losses, and it can be just as hard to get a sick kid to drink anything.

This article will review the signs of mild to moderate dehydration in children and explore how to keep kids hydrated when they aren't feeling well.

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