Common Childhood Illnesses

Certain common childhood illnesses are just a part of growing up, and catching them actually helps to boost your child's immune system. While most illnesses come and go, there are some that deserve special attention from parents.

A cold is an infection of the respiratory system. While a cold can be uncomfortable, it usually isn't dangerous. Signs of an upper respiratory infection include a runny or stuffy nose, a poor appetite, restlessness, irritability, coughing and fever.

Signs of a lower respiratory infection include coughing that lasts day and night, fever, difficulty breathing and wheezing. In rare cases a lower respiratory infection may become more serious, turning into bronchiolitis, and potentially requiring hospitalization. 

While viral infections cause most upper respiratory infections, there are many causes for lower respiratory infections. As with many childhood illnesses, rest is the best cure for a cold.

Sometimes bacterial infections will escalate, turning into bacterial pneumonia. Signs of this in babies and small children include decreased activity, rapid breathing, irritability and poor appetite. Antibiotics can help to clear pneumonia.

The flu is caused by influenza viruses A and B, and its symptoms are much like the cold, only worse. Vomiting and diarrhea are generally not symptoms, but the flu often gets confused with stomach viruses, especially if a fever is present. 

Symptoms of the flu include body aches, a fever, a dry cough and a dry or sore throat. Your child may feel tired and have little to no appetite. The worst part of the flu is typically the first three or four days, with complete recovery taking anywhere from one to two weeks. Young children, pregnant women, older adults and those with impaired immune systems are at the highest risk of complications from the flu. You may want to get a flu shot for young children if they are at risk for respiratory complications.

Rest at home, drinking plenty of liquids and medicine such as acetaminophen can help the flu. Do not give children under 16 aspirin for symptoms, as this can lead to a rare liver disease known as Reye's Syndrome. If the fever rises above 102 degrees Fahrenheit, call your doctor for treatment advice.

Chicken Pox
Almost everyone is familiar with chicken pox. Chicken pox causes a red, itchy rash and spots or blisters all over the body. Most people who have not had the chicken pox vaccine will get the illness at some point. Chicken pox can be very dangerous for adults, pregnant women, teens and newborns. Children, however, are not generally subject to the extreme health complications that chicken pox can have. Those most likely to get the chicken pox are people who have never been exposed to it and those who haven't received the chicken pox vaccine.

Chicken pox is easily spread through sneezing, coughing and sharing food or drink. The most likely time to spread chicken pox is two to three days before the rash appears, lasting until the blisters have crusted over. Once you have been exposed to someone with the chicken pox, it can take up to 16 days for symptoms to appear.

The first signs of chicken pox are a fever, headache and sore throat. Your child may feel tired and lose her appetite, followed one or two days later by the rash. Once the rash appears, it takes one to two days to go through its stages: blistering, bursting, drying and crusting over. New spots will appear every day for five to seven days. Your child will be ready to go back to school or daycare roughly 10 days after the symptoms first appear.

Rest is the best cure for chicken pox. Your child may also take medicine for the itchiness and try soaking in oatmeal baths. In teens and adults, chicken pox can cause permanent scars. The best way to avoid this is to let the blisters run their course; don't pop them or pull at scabs.

Once a child has chicken pox, it's unlikely that he will get it again. The virus remains in the body for a long time, however, and if it becomes active again your child may develop a painful condition called shingles.

Mumps is a virus that can be spread by sneezing, coughing and sharing food or drink. Mumps causes swelling between the ear and the jaw at the salivary glands. This can be very painful. One in three people with mumps will not have swelling. Instead, they will get an upper respiratory infection. 

Those with the mumps are most likely to spread it one to two days before their symptoms start and five days afterwards. It can take 14 to 16 days after exposure for someone infected to show symptoms.

Symptoms of mumps include abdominal pain, swollen cheeks and swollen and tender testicles. Flu-like symptoms may also be a sign of the mumps.

Generally rest is the best cure for the mumps. Occasionally hospitalization is required, but this is rare.

Also known as poliomyelitis, polio was nearly eliminated from the Western hemisphere in the second half of the 20th century. 

In 95% of polio cases, there are no symptoms. This is known as asymptomatic polio. In the cases of polio where symptoms do appear, they do so in one of three ways:

  • A very mild form that produces cold-like symptoms. This is known as abortive polio.
  • A type associated with aseptic meningitis, known as nonparalytic polio.
  • The most severe (and rare) type is known as paralytic polio. As the name suggests, this can cause paralysis or even death.

The most common way to spread polio is through the ingestion of material contaminated with the virus in feces, something many kids inadvertently do. Not washing hands after using the bathroom and drinking contaminated water may spread the disease.

Vaccination can prevent polio, and children in the United States typically receive the vaccine during the elementary school years.

Asthma is a swelling and inflammation of the airways. Babies and small children rarely have asthma, but their likelihood of getting asthma increases as they get older. A hacking cough is sometimes the only sign of asthma. Other symptoms include wheezing and shortness of breath at night or after exercise. Severe wheezing and difficulty breathing (requiring the use of abdominal muscles, neck and chest) are signs of severe asthma.

Doctors aren't entirely sure what causes asthma, but it does seem to be more common in people with allergies. To help your child avoid an asthma attack, keep her away from things that trigger their asthma, such as cigarette smoke; heavy pollution; cold, dry air; rigorous exercise and allergens like pet dander and pollen.

Asthma can be life-threatening, but proper treatment, including possible use of an inhaler, can prevent asthma from reaching extreme measures.

Whooping Cough
Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a very contagious infection of the upper respiratory system, where the nasal passages meet the pharynx. Whooping cough can last months and may have three distinct phases. The first phase may last from a few days to several weeks and consists of cold-like symptoms: sneezing, mild cough, watery eyes and runny nose. This is the most contagious stage. 

The second stage lasts from two to four weeks and is when the cold symptoms lessen but the cough worsens. It becomes violent and uncontrollable, and the infected person may find it difficult to take a breath during a coughing episode. Once able to breathe, the infected person may take in a sudden gasp of air, making a whooping sound. Vomiting and severe exhaustion may follow a coughing episode. This is the most serious stage of whooping cough.

The third and final stage lasts anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. The cough gets louder and sounds worse. Coughing episodes may worsen if the infected person gets a cold or other respiratory infection. This stage lasts longest in those who have never been vaccinated.

Whooping cough may be passed through coughing or sneezing, and symptoms may show up one to two weeks after exposure. To help your children avoid whooping cough, have them wash their hands frequently and keep them away from children and adults with a bad cough. 

Whooping cough can be treated with antibiotics, though this is primarily to prevent the spread of infection. It may help shorten the illness if given very early. 

Occasionally whooping cough will cause pneumonia, which can be very serious for babies and small children, especially those who haven't been vaccinated. 

The best protection from whooping cough is vaccination. Since it is possible to spread whooping cough without even knowing that you have it, anyone who has not been vaccinated could potentially spread the disease to babies and others who aren't immunized.

Scarlet Fever
Scarlet fever is strep throat with a rash, caused by the streptococcal bacteria group A beta-hemolytic streptococcus (GABS). Symptoms of scarlet fever include a temperature above 101 degrees F, a sore throat and trouble swallowing, white or yellow spots on the throat and tonsils and swollen lymph nodes in the neck. The most obvious symptom of scarlet fever is a red rash that begins on the chest and abdomen and then spreads over the body. The rash is the most apparent in skin folds and lasts for a week before the skin begins to peel.

Symptoms in children include body aches, stomachache, headache, nausea, vomiting and listlessness. 
Two to three days after symptoms first appear you may notice red spots on the roof of the mouth or tongue, which is known as strawberry tongue.

Scarlet fever is the most common in children between the ages of 2 and 10. Antibiotics can help treat the disease.

Rubella is also commonly known as German measles or three-day measles. It may be spread by sneezing, coughing, sharing food or drink, or even talking. You can also contract rubella by touching a surface and then your eyes, mouth or nose. Occasionally rubella is passed through blood.

Symptoms of rubella include a slight fever, swollen glands (especially behind the ears and at the back of the head) and a rash. Fever, eye pain, sore throat and body aches can be symptoms in teenagers and older children. 

People with rubella are most contagious a few days before the rash appears and for five to seven days afterward. After exposure to someone with rubella, you may not notice symptoms for 14 to 21 days. Between 25% and 50% of those with rubella show no symptoms at all, yet they are still contagious. 

Rubella is generally a mild disease, but it can be very harmful to pregnant women. If a pregnant woman gets the rubella virus, she can pass it on to her unborn child. This can cause congenital rubella syndrome (CRS) in the first trimester, which may lead to cataracts and other eye problems, hearing impairment and heart disease. 
Acetaminophen, not aspirin, is the primary treatment for rubella. Pregnant women who are not immune and are exposed to rubella may be given an injection of immune globulin. This doesn't prevent the infection, but it may lower the severity of the symptoms. 

Vaccination Schedules
Vaccination can prevent most of these childhood illnesses. Recently some parents have become concerned with the side effects of vaccinations, including a potential link to autism. These concerns should be discussed with your doctor to determine what is best for your child. 

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