ER Doctor Says Kids Are Hallucinating — a Symptom of Flu

  • A mom and ER doctor says her 7-year-old daughter recently started hallucinating and hearing voices.
  • The pediatrician didn’t panic, because she recognized her daughter’s distress as a classic sign of infection.
  • Fevers, our body’s attempt to fight viruses like the flu, can prompt brief periods of delirium.

One recent morning at 7 am, Kathryn MacKinlay realized her sick daughter Marissa was hallucinating.

“Mommy, Mommy, make it stop!” Marissa said. She described hearing people shouting unbearably.

MacKinlay tried to soothe her 7-year-old’s fears: “Sweetie, no one is yelling.”

The pediatrician was able to remain calm because she knew exactly what was happening to her daughter. Marissa was sick, with other flu-like symptoms. The hallucinations her little one was experiencing were the exact same kind of brief delirium that has filled up her hospital in recent weeks. It’s a signal of the body’s fight against a common, invading virus.

“Come on emergency doctorI have seen many other kids hallucinating these last few weeks,” MacKinlay said in a recent blog post. “These young patients have all been influenza positive.”

Why hallucinations can be a hallmark of the flu

Doctor Fabian Villasenor shows a mucus sample and the reactive strip employed to detect the influenza A(H1N1) (swine flu) virus, taken from one-year-old child Ulises Gabriel Sanchez (out of frame), in Mexico city, on April 30 , 2009.

A positive test is the only way to know for sure if your child has the flu.

Luis Acosta/AFP via Getty Images

In the Canadian hospital where MacKinlay works, she said many sick children have recently been complaining of:

  • hearing loud sounds
  • seeing objects as too large or too far away
  • and feeling scared that someone or something is trying to hurt them

These are all classic signs of the delirium that can come along with the fevers our body uses to fight against infection.

Our brains are sensitive to temperature changes, so fevers can lead to hallucinations by disrupting normal activity. The episodes are generally brief, lasting just a few minutes, and do not require medical attention.

If a child’s fever is higher than 104 degrees Fahrenheit, does not respond to treatment like Advil (ibuprofen) or Tylenol (acetaminophen), or if a patient is experiencing prolonged episodes of confusion (for more than a few minutes), it’s time to seek help.

But in most cases, “your little one will be okay,” MacKinlay said. Simply “offer cuddles” and wait for the feverish confusion to pass. The doctor recommends “alternating Advil and Tylenol every three hours” to bring the patient’s fever down, which should, in turn, alleviate delirium episodes.

mom and daughter snow tubing

courtesy of Dr. Kathryn MacKinlay, Interior Health

The mom and ER doctor is now happy to report that “we are back to playing in the snow and hearing no voices other than the shrieks of laughter of healthy kids.”

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