Protect Against Flu: Caregivers of Infants and Young Children

Mother and father with infant

Children younger than 5 years old, and–especially those younger than 2, are at higher risk of developing serious flu-related complications. CDC estimates that from 2010 to 2020, flu-related hospitalizations among children younger than 5 years ranged from between 6,000 to 27,000 per year in the United States. Many more have to go to a doctor, an urgent care center, or the emergency room because of flu.

Complications from flu among children can include:

  • pneumonia (an illness where the lungs get infected and inflamed),
  • dehydration (when a child’s body loses too much water and salts, often because fluid losses are greater than fluid intake),
  • worsening of long-term medical problems like heart disease or asthma,
  • brain dysfunction,
  • sinus problems, and ear infections.

In rare cases, flu complications can lead to death.

Children Younger Than 6 Months Old at Highest Risk

Children younger than 6 months old have the highest risk for being hospitalized from flu compared to children of other ages but are too young to get a flu vaccine. Because flu vaccines are not approved for use in children younger than 6 months old, protecting them from flu is especially important.

Advice on How to Fight Flu for Caregivers of Children Younger than 5 Years Old

  1. Take Time to Get a Vaccine
    • A yearly flu vaccine is the first and best way to protect against flu.
    • Flu vaccine has been shown to reduce the risk of flu illness, hospitalization and death in children.
    • If the child you care for is 6 months or older, they should get a flu vaccine each year.
    • As a caregiver to a young child, you should get a flu vaccine, and make sure that other caregivers and all household members aged 6 months and older also get vaccinated each year. By getting vaccinated, you will be less likely to get flu and therefore less likely to spread flu to the child.
  2. Take Everyday Preventive Actions
    • Keep yourself and the child in your care away from people who are sick as much as you can.
    • If you get flu symptoms, avoid contact with other people when possible, including the child in your care. Consider arranging for another caregiver to care for the child if possible, so that you don’t make them sick.
    • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze—throw the tissue away after you use it and wash your hands. The use of a face mask is an additional strategy that can be used to reduce the spread of respiratory viruses.
    • Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. If you are not near water, use an alcohol-based hand cleaner.
    • Try not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs often spread this way.
    • Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces, especially when someone is ill, can help reduce the spread of respiratory viruses.
    • You can improve air quality by bringing in fresh outside air, purifying indoor air, or gathering outdoors.
  3. Take Antiviral Drugs to Treat Flu Illness if Your Doctor Prescribes Them
    • Antiviral drugs are available to treat flu in children and adults.
    • Antiviral drugs can make illness milder and shorten illness duration. They also may prevent serious flu complications.
    • Antiviral drugs are different from antibiotics that treat bacterial infections. They are prescription medicines (pills, liquid or an inhaled powder) that are for treatment of flu.
    • Antiviral drugs work best when treatment is started within 2 days of becoming sick with flu, but starting them later can still be helpful, especially if the sick person is very sick with flu or is at higher risk of serious flu complications. Follow your doctor’s instructions for taking or giving these drugs.
    • Treating people who are very sick with flu or who are at higher risk of flu complications with antiviral drugs can mean the difference between having a milder illness versus a very serious illness that could result in a hospital stay.
    • CDC recommends that people at higher risk of serious flu complications, including young children, should be treated with flu antiviral drugs as soon as possible if they get sick with flu.
      • Although all children younger than 5 years old are considered at higher risk for complications from flu, the highest risk is for those younger than 2 years old, with the highest hospitalization and death rates among infants younger than 6 months old.

Advice If You Are Sick with Flu and Care for Children Younger than 5 Years Old

Flu may cause fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Young children also may have vomiting or diarrhea with flu symptoms. It’s important to note that some people with flu may not have a fever. If you live with or care for a young child and you get flu symptoms, follow the precautions below to help prevent the spread of illness to the child or children in your care.

  1. Remember How Flu Spreads
    • Flu viruses are thought to spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby. People with flu can spread it to others nearby. Less often, a person might get flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching his or her own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes.
  2. Follow These Steps
    • Call your health care professional if you develop flu symptoms; they may prescribe antiviral drugs for flu, depending on factors including your age and overall health and the age and overall health of your young child or children.
    • Try to minimize contact with the child in your care as much as possible, especially if the child in your care is younger than 2 years old or is an older child with a chronic medical condition. They are very vulnerable to flu.
    • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when sneezing or coughing, and put your used tissue in a wastebasket, and wash your hands. The use of a face mask is an additional strategy that can be used to reduce the spread of respiratory viruses.
    • Before engaging in any activity near the child in your care (including feeding, changing, rocking, reading to your child) thoroughly wash and dry your hands. See more information about preventing the spread of seasonal flu.
    • Cleaning frequently touched surfaces, such as countertops, handrails, and doorknobs regularly, can help reduce the spread of respirataory viruses.
    • You can improve air quality by increasing airflow, cleaning the air, or opting to gather outdoors. This can help reduce the amount of virus you are exposed to.
  3. Be Watchful to See If Your Child Gets Sick Too
    • Observe the child or children in your care closely for signs and symptoms of respiratory illness. If your child develops a fever* (or feels feverish with chills), cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headache, fatigue, or vomiting and/or diarrhea—contact your child’s health care provider.
    • Flu antiviral drugs can be used to treat flu and are approved for use in children. These drugs are most beneficial when antiviral treatment is started as soon as possible after the illness starts, so it’s important to contact your child’s health care provider as soon as they have flu symptoms.
    • If your child shows any Emergency Warning Signs of flu, seek medical care immediately.


* Many authorities use either 100 (37.8 degrees Celsius) or 100.4 F (38.0 degrees Celsius) as a cut-off for fever, but this number can vary depending on factors such as the method of measurement and the age of the person