In most cases, there is nothing wrong with your child’s ability to fight infection. In fact, the average number of ‘colds’ per year is between six and eight. That is almost one for every month of the school year! Being exposed to common childhood illnesses, and building defences against them, is an expected part of growing up.
Thankfully, today’s list of common diseases is very different from those in our parents or grandparents’ day. Modern vaccinations mean that previously common diseases like measles or rubella, which often had very serious consequences for children, are less likely.
Many common illnesses start out the same way, perhaps with a fever, cough or sniffles. Knowing about common childhood infections is useful to any parent, and it is possible to prevent or avoid spreading them. You can also learn when it is probably safe for a child to return to school. These illnesses are relatively mild and generally get better on their own. However, seek medical advice if symptoms persist (especially fever), or are worrisome (as when your child has difficulty breathing or has no energy).
Most of us know what a cold feels like, and it can be just as miserable for children as it is for adults. The common cold is caused by any number of different viruses, but most often by the rhinovirus. It is characterized by sneezing, nasal congestion with runny nose, sore throat, cough, headache, feeling unwell or aching. Younger kids sometimes have a low-grade fever. Older kids may not get a fever at all. Symptoms usually peak on the third day and get better after that. The cough might last several days after most of the other symptoms are gone.
The common cold does not need antibiotics. Treatment focuses on relieving symptoms in order to keep your child comfortable. This can include acetaminophen or ibuprofen for fever and aches. Offer warm fluids like soup and herbal teas to provide comfort and needed hydration. If your child is over a year old, a teaspoon of honey before bed can help with the cough. Over-the-counter cough and cold remedies are not recommended for children under age 12. They have not been proven to work and could cause serious side effects.
The common cold is passed along from person to person, through hand contact as well as breathing in small droplets that are in the air. This is why it is very important to wash your own and your child’s hands frequently when they are ill. Teach them to cough into their arm or a tissue rather than directly into the air or their hands. The virus spreads when we cough or sneeze into our hands, then either touch our faces or grab a doorknob or other object.
Usually it is not necessary to seek medical care for the common cold, especially if your child is generally healthy and has up-to-date immunizations. You may want to talk to your doctor if symptoms last longer than expected (more than a week), or fever persists or returns after the first few days.
Base the decision to return to school on how your child feels. The spread of the virus peaks on the third day, usually coinciding with the peak of the symptoms. Most kids can return to school on the fourth or fifth day. If your child still has fever or feels very weak, then a day or two more at home might be best. Keep in mind that rest and fluids help speed the recovery process.
Many of us have experienced waking with a crusty, sticky eye that is glued shut. Once the eye finally opens, it is red and watering. This condition is called conjunctivitis (pink eye), and is an inflammation of the conjunctiva. This is the mucous membrane lining the globe of the eye and the inside surface of the eyelids. A virus or bacteria causes inflammation, making the white part of the eye look red and inflamed.
Conjunctivitis is highly contagious. It is easily spread, not only from one eye to the other but from one person to another. Spread occurs through direct contact with somebody who has it, through secretions (tears or mucus), or by touching contaminated surfaces or objects.
Viral conjunctivitis is the most common cause of pink eye. If your child wakes up with an eye that is stuck shut, clean it with a cotton ball soaked in warm water. Once the eye is open, you may notice watery discharge and some stringy mucus along with the redness. The eye may be red and watery throughout the day, then stuck shut the next morning. Your child may complain of a burning or sandy, gritty feeling in the eye.
With viral conjunctivitis, the eye actually has a 'cold'. The viruses that normally cause it are the same ones that cause common cold symptoms. That is why sometimes your child will cough and sneeze as part of pink eye.
More often than not, the second eye will become infected within 24 to 48 hours. The infection is self-limited, which means it will go away on its own. It usually peaks around days three to five. Treat symptoms with cold or warm compresses and perhaps non-antibiotic lubricating eye drops or ointment. These comfort the scratchy gritty eye, even if they do not speed recovery.
With bacterial conjunctivitis, your child may wake up with his eye glued shut. However, there is a difference between this condition and viral conjunctivitis. First, cleanse the eye. In this case, instead of a watery discharge, you will see a white, yellow or green discharge that appears again minutes after wiping it away. If you suspect bacterial conjunctivitis, seek medical care. Your child will need an antibiotic eye ointment for treatment. While bacterial conjunctivitis is rarely dangerous, it should be treated with more than just comfort methods.
For both viral and bacterial conjunctivitis, the best way to reduce spread is to stay home until there is no more discharge. However, this is not realistic as it can take several days for the eye to be completely clear. Most schools and day cares allow a child to return 24 hours after starting the topical therapy (eye drops or ointment).
Remember that if your child has viral conjunctivitis, an antibiotic ointment will not help. Using antibiotics when they are not required is not good for your child or the general population.
Hand foot and mouth disease is a viral illness usually caused by the coxsackievirus or enterovirus. The virus is passed through oral ingestion. It is picked up from an infected person’s feces (poop), nasal secretions or throat discharge, saliva, or sprayed droplets from coughing or sneezing. Contact with fluid from the blisters of an infected person will also cause it. The disease occurs primarily in infants and small children.
If your child starts to complain of mouth or throat pain, suspect hand, foot and mouth disease. A child who is too young to talk may show discomfort by refusing to eat. A low-grade fever is possible. There are usually not any other symptoms like sniffles or sneezes. You may see many small sores on your child’s tongue and on the sides of the mouth. A rash may appear on the hands and feet, but it is not itchy or painful. The look may vary from red spots to bumps, or bumps with a bubble appearance. The rash usually goes away three to four days after it appears. Neither the rash nor the sores in the mouth need any specific treatment. Just make sure your child takes in enough fluids. A really sore mouth can make it hard to drink.
Your child will be most contagious in the first week of the illness and should probably stay home during this time. A child with active skin lesions (fluid coming from the tiny bumps) should definitely stay home until these are crusted over. As this illness is passed through feces, hand hygiene is especially important, especially for adults handling diapers. During this time, be sure to help with keeping your young child’s hands clean.
If you notice that your child’s face and cheeks have broken out in a red rash, suspect Fifth Disease. Many of us know it by the name slapped cheek. This viral infection, erythema infectiosum, is caused by human parvovirus B19. It typically has two steps, starting with non-specific flu-like symptoms. These may include mild fever, feeling unwell, muscle aches, headache and runny nose. Two to five days after symptoms appear, a classic ‘slapped cheek’ rash may appear on your child’s face. Several days later, the rash may appear on the body, legs and arms.
This illness passes from one person to another through the respiratory system (droplets in the air), even though there is not usually a cough. Young children are usually the main source. Passing it along to members of the same family is very common. The best way to prevent the spread is by careful and thorough hand washing and avoiding sharing food or drinks. It is important to note that children are no longer contagious once they have the typical rash. Children can return to school once they feel well enough, regardless of how their faces look.
Fifth disease is self-limited – it will go away on its own. It does not require medication, other than possibly acetaminophen or ibuprofen for comfort if the child is very feverish and achy.
As parents, we spend quite a bit of time teaching our young children to share. Childhood illnesses are things they share very well. If it seems that your child is sick all the time, be reassured that this is a normal stage of development. Recognizing one of these common childhood illnesses can help both of you to feel better. However, never hesitate to seek medical advice if you are unsure. Many childhood illnesses do require a doctor’s diagnosis and treatment.