Influenza Epidemic: Can Itchy, Red Hives Be an Early Sign of Flu?

A mother’s warning about a rare flu symptom has gone viral on social media. By Thursday morning, Brodi Willard’s post telling parents that a rash might be a symptom of the flu had been shared nearly 250,000 times. However, some flu experts are skeptical the virus really caused the rash.

Willard, a nurse in Nebraska, said she noticed the rash on her son Seb, age 6, on January 26. By Friday, he had gone to the doctor and started the antiviral drug Tamiflu. "By Sunday afternoon, the hives disappeared," she told Newsweek. (Seb did get the flu shot back in October.) 

Her pediatrician said other children who had tested positive for the flu also had rashes. Willard’s son also tested positive for influenza B—despite not having any other typical flu symptoms.

"I'm a nurse at one of the hospitals in the area, I see a lot of influenza patients. No one has ever had the hives," Willard said. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more common symptoms include a cough, a sore throat, body aches and fatigue. Seattle Children’s Hospital’s website notes that the most common cause of hives is viral infections. They can also be caused by strep or bladder infections or allergic reactions.

Researchers in British Columbia published a paper in 2015 about rashes that happened during an outbreak of influenza B—the same strain Willard said her son had. Adults with the flu can also have rashes. A 26-year-old man with typical flu symptoms went to the emergency room in India and he tested positive for the strain of the virus associated with the 2009 pandemic. His case was published in BMJ Case Reports. (His case wasn’t really a normal flu case, though. He also had bleeding in his eyes after coughing a lot.)

Unlike Seb Willard’s case, though, these rashes were all accompanied by more traditional flu symptoms, too—which is why Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, said he and his colleagues aren't convinced this child's rash was truly a flu symptom. “We’re inclined to believe this was a coincidence,” he said. He noted that it’s possible for children to carry the virus without appearing sick.

But Seb's mother does believe the rash was related. "He's a normally healthy child. He doesn't have skin problems or irritation or anything," she said. "I just want people to know that this is out there."