Don't fret if your child gets one of many common child viruses. Kids get sick. It's a fact of life, but that doesn't make it any easier on us parents. Our battle to make it better begins with the first cough, sniffle or sneeze. And the enemy? A nasty little thing called a virus, the cause of most childhood illnesses.
What Viruses Do
Viruses are not bacteria, the other type of "germ" that makes us sick. Bacteria are complete organisms that can exist on their own and are big enough to be seen through a microscope. Viruses are much smaller and need a host cell (like one of yours) to live.
Viruses and bacteria are both transmitted through contact with infected secretions from the body or contaminated hands or objects - but the two are treated quite differently.
"Antibiotics are effective against bacterial infections but not against viral infections," explains Danielle Zerr, M.D., a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Children's Hospital in Seattle. "There are a few antiviral medications available (for example, anti-influenza medications), but nothing available for the common cold."
Still, knowledge is power. Here's a guide to the most common virus-caused illnesses in childhood, and the kinds of treatment you can offer to give your child relief:
Hand, Foot & Mouth Disease
Treating Viral Infections
Because viral infections cannot be cured with antibiotics, doctors and parents can only do their best to relieve kids' symptoms and let the infection run its course. In general, children who are sick need plenty of rest and lots of fluids. Hydration helps relieve stuffy noses and coughs by making secretions thinner; it also makes kids with a fever feel more comfortable.
Itchy rashes can be treated with over-the-counter calamine lotion or a lukewarm oatmeal bath. Fever in children older than 2 months can be treated with acetaminophen, and muscle aches and other pain can be treated with ibuprofen. Doctors warn against giving aspirin to children, because it has been associated with Reye's syndrome, a potentially fatal complication causing brain and liver damage.
Use of other over-the-counter medications to relieve symptoms is a matter of parent and doctor preference, says Starke.
"I'm not a big fan of cough and cold medicines, especially in kids under 2 years of age," says Johnson, adding that coughs actually protect a person's airway by keeping mucus from getting down further into the lungs.
Schachter recommends against antihistamines and decongestants for kids under age 6, but says they can provide relief in older children. "To help a child under 6 to breathe, you can suction out the mucus with a nasal bulb or put three drops of saline nasal wash in each nostril," he says.
Calling the Doctor
How do you know when a child's doctor needs to be contacted?
"If the child is having what seems like a normal kids' illness, usually it's not something you need to worry about," says infection control specialist Jeffrey Stark, M.D.
The following symptoms, however, merit immediate attention:
"Don't forget your common sense," advises pediatric infectious disease specialist Danielle Zerr, M.D. "If your child looks sick and you're worried, call the doctor."
The Good Doctor's Guide to Colds & Flu, by Neil Schachter, M.D., Collins, 2005.
Guide to Your Child's Symptoms, American Academy of Pediatrics, 1997.
The 24-Hour Pediatrician, by Christina Elston, Three Rivers Press, 2002.
On the Web
Medline Plus - http://medlineplus.gov - This service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health offers information on common illnesses.
© Parenthood.com, used with permission.
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