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Common Childhood Illnesses: What to look out for and what to do

by Marisabelle Bonnici

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Being a parent is stressful. Children tend to get sick often until their immune system starts developing and this can be the cause of a lot of anxiety to young parents particularly if dealing with their first child. To top it all off, your children seem to always get sick over the weekend or at night when access to doctors and medicines can be more restricted. So, we have prepared a brief overview of common childhood ailments as well as some tips on what to look out for and what to do.

1. Sore throat

Sore throats happen all the time in both kids and adults and this is probably one of the most common complaints you will have to deal with. But most of the time, it's nothing to worry about. Common sore throats, especially when associated with a cold, will generally get better without the need for any treatment so do not give your children antibiotics if not prescribed by a paediatrician or GP.

When should you call your physician?

  • If your child is having trouble breathing.
  • If your kid is having trouble swallowing, especially if you notice that the child is drooling.
  • If it has a stiff neck.
  • If your child has a high fever (38.8 C or higher) that doesn't go down with paracetamol.
  • If your child is refusing to drink.
  • If the pain is severe.
  • If you are unable to wake your child up or keep it awake.
  • If your child has a rash, headache, stomachache or is vomiting

If none of the above is happening, that's good news and chances are your kid will be fine in a day or two.

How can I help my child with a sore throat?

  • Offer cold liquids or cold foods like ice lollies (avoid ice lollies with citrus though). If they don't want to eat that's fine, but they have to drink. Give small sips of a little water at a time if needed. It is important to keep the throat moist.
  • If your child has sores, avoid foods that are salty, spicy, acidic (like orange juice) or sharp (like crisps containing vinegar).
  • Speak to your pharmacist/doctor about giving Paracetamol and make sure you administer the right dose for your child's weight.
  • Add cool mist or a humidifier to your child's room. Increased moisture in the air can help relieve pain from a sore throat.
  • Children under 5 years should not be given hard candy cough drops or anything else that might pose a choking risk.
  • Honey is a natural healer and it's fine to give natural remedies to your children, however, don't give honey to children who are younger than 1 year.
  • Chamomile is also naturally soothing. It's often used for its anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties and it will help your child sleep better through the night. It can be easily purchased from these supermarket and discount stores.
  • For older children who already know how to gargle, you can help them by offering some warm salt water to gargle as this will not only soothe a sore throat but will also break down secretions. Make a saltwater solution with a half-teaspoon of salt in a full glass of warm water.

2. Earache

Earaches are quite common in children especially under 5 years of age or following a common cold. Ear pain can be the result of several things including fluid built-up behind the eardrum, an infection in the middle part of the ear (also known as otitis media) or an infection in the ear canal (also known as swimmers' ear). It can also result from a blockage around the nose. 

What are the signs and symptoms of an ear infection?

  • Ear pain
  • Redness or swelling around the outer part of the ear
  • Fluid leakage from the ear
  • Pulling or rubbing the ears
  • Vomiting
  • Fever

How can I help my child with an earache feel more comfortable?

  • It is always recommended to call your doctor when there is ear pain as you could easily miss something that only a doctor can check.
  • If this happens at night give Paracetamol to the child to reduce the pain and fever and then speak to your doctor in the morning.
  • Resting the infected ear on a warm (not hot) heating pad can provide some relief.
  • A nasal decongestant or saline spray in the nose can help if the pain is caused by a sinus blockage.

How can I prevent it?

  • Make sure your kids get appropriate vaccinations. Both the pneumococcal and the flu vaccines will reduce the odds of getting middle ear infections.
  • Do not clean your children's ears with cotton swabs or sharp objects.
  • Avoid second-hand smoking as this can increase the likelihood of your child getting ear infections.
  • Don't give a bottle when your baby is lying down.
  • Encourage hygiene practices from a young age by teaching children to wash their hands properly especially when playing with other children.
  • When a young child/baby sucks on a bottle, the fluid is more likely to get pulled into the ear canal, particularly if the baby drinks from a bottle while lying on his or her back. For this reason, it is better to hold the baby at least semi-erect during feeding.

3. Conjunctivitis or pink eye

Conjunctivitis, which is often referred to as pinkeye is a frequent condition seen in young children. It's usually contagious, and breakouts can sweep through preschools and playgrounds.

Pinkeye is a result of inflammation of the white part of the eye and can sometimes also affect the eyelids. It's a minor infection that most children will get at least once throughout their childhood and although it might look worrying, it is usually not serious.

What are the signs and symptoms of pinkeye?

Besides the telltale red or pink colour that gives pinkeye its name, eye discomfort is a common symptom. Children will often describe the condition as having sand in their eye. Often, there's also some discharge, pain and swelling of the conjunctiva, while some kids have swollen eyelids or sensitivity to bright light. Pinkeye can affect one or both eyes.

Pinkeye can also be due to allergies. In that case, it is called allergic conjunctivitis and you will notice different symptoms that are itchiness and watery eyes.

Is pinkeye contagious?

Pinkeye is contagious if it's caused by bacteria or a virus but not if it is due to an allergy:

  • Pinkeye that's caused by a bacterial infection can be spread very easily. It begins being contagious as soon as symptoms appear and for as long as there's discharge from the eye or until 24 hours after antibiotic treatment is commenced.
  • Pinkeye that's caused by a virus is generally contagious even before symptoms appear and can remain so as long as the symptoms last. So sometimes children will go to childcare not knowing they are spreading this virus.

A child can get pinkeye by touching another infected person or something an infected person has touched before, this includes toys, bottles, telephones and even tissues. In the summertime, pinkeye can spread when kids swim in contaminated water especially in pools or even share towels and beach toys. Also, someone who has pinkeye in one eye can spread it to the other by rubbing or touching the infected eye, then touching the other one.

Kissing or hugging siblings and friends can also result in the spreading of this condition.

How is pinkeye treated?

Pinkeye caused by a virus usually goes away without any treatment. On the other hand, pinkeye caused by bacteria is treated with antibiotic eye drops or ointment that can be purchased from these pharmacies.

It can be hard to get kids to tolerate eye drops several times a day. If you're having trouble, put the drops on the inner corner of your child's closed eye, as in this way when your child opens the eye, the medicine will flow into it. If you still have trouble with drops, ask the doctor about antibiotic ointment, which can be placed in a thin layer where the eyelids meet and will melt and enter the eye.

You'll know your kid has bacterial conjunctivitis when you see that there is a discharge from the eye and you may notice that your child is waking up with crusty eyes in the morning as this hardens overnight. Use a warm, damp cloth to remove pus from around the eye and lashes.

Lubricating eye drops or 'natural tears' can soothe irritation in the eye. These drops can help relieve the symptoms of all types of pinkeye. They help to flush out allergens, irritants, and discharge.

If your child has allergic conjunctivitis, your doctor may prescribe anti-allergy medicine, either as pills, liquid or eye drops.

Can pinkeye be prevented?

Infectious conjunctivitis is highly contagious so it is difficult to prevent particularly if the child attends childcare or school where they spend several hours in an enclosed space with other children. Teach your kids to wash their hands well and often with warm water and soap. They also should not share eye drops, tissues, washcloths and towels.

Be sure to wash your own hands very well after touching an infected child's eyes. Wash towels and bed linens that the child has used in hot water separately from the rest of the laundry to avoid contamination.

If you know your child is prone to allergic conjunctivitis, keep windows and doors closed on days when the pollen is heavy and dust and vacuum often to limit allergy triggers.

4. Diarrhoea

Diarrhoea is frequent, soft and loose bowel movements. This is something that most kids will suffer from every once in a while. 

What causes diarrhoea?

Viral gastroenteritis often called the 'gastric flu', is a very common illness in both children and adults. Symptoms of gastric flu include diarrhoea and, often, nausea and even vomiting. Children who come in contact with this virus, especially younger babies, are more at risk of becoming dehydrated so it's imperative to keep a close look for dehydration symptoms.

Diarrhoea caused by the Rotavirus usually affects mostly babies and young kids and can bring on watery diarrhoea. This is generally more prevalent during the winter and early spring months. The rotavirus vaccine can protect children from this illness but needs to be given very early after birth for it to be effective so make sure you inform yourself about all the necessary vaccines.

Diarrhoea can also be caused by some types of bacteria. These bacteria are often responsible for cases of what we refer to as food poisoning, which can cause diarrhoea and vomiting within a few hours after someone is infected.

What else can cause diarrhoea?

Kids can sometimes get diarrhoea from:

  • A diet high in sugar such as for instance, drinking lots of fruit juice and eating a lot of candy.
  • Food allergies
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Heatstroke/heat exhaustion

Kids often get cramps in their belly first, followed by diarrhoea that can last between 2–5 days. Other symptoms may include:

  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Dehydration
  • Tiredness
  • Diaper rashes

How is diarrhoea treated?

Viral diarrhoea will generally go away on its own, however, most kids with bacterial diarrhoea need treatment with an antibiotic. Kids who aren't vomiting or becoming dehydrated can continue eating and drinking or breastfeeding as usual. In fact, continuing a regular diet may even shorten the diarrhoea episode.

Don't give your child an over-the-counter antidiarrheal medicine unless your doctor tells you to do so, however, probiotics and oral rehydration salts are always recommended as they help prevent the child from getting dehydrated, while they rebalance the gut flora. Kids should not be rehydrated with water alone because it doesn't contain the right mix of sodium, potassium and other important minerals and nutrients.

In some cases, they may need to get IV fluids at the hospital for a few hours to help treat the dehydration. Your doctor will guide you if this should be necessary but familiarising yourself with symptoms of dehydration is also a must.

When should I call the doctor?

Call your doctor IMMEDIATELY if:

  • There are signs of dehydration such as no urine in more than 12 hours, very dry mouth, no tears.
  • Blood appears in stools.
  • The diarrhoea is severe (more than 8 stools in the last 8 hours).
  • Mucus or pus appears in the stools.
  • Fever lasts more than 3 days.
  • Mild diarrhoea lasts more than 2 weeks.

How can diarrhoea be prevented?

It's almost impossible to prevent kids from ever getting diarrhoea. This is one of the most common conditions in childhood.

  • Make sure kids wash their hands well especially after using the toilet and before eating.
  • Keep bathroom surfaces like sinks and toilets clean.
  • Wash all fruit and vegetables well before eating.
  • Avoid washing pet cages or bowls in the same sink that you use to prepare food.
  • Clean kitchen counters well after preparing raw meat. In fact, here are a few tips on how to achieve a spotless kitchen.

5. Chicken Pox

Chickenpox is a viral infection that causes fever and an itchy rash with spots all over the body. It is a common childhood illness especially in kids under age 12. It is generally more common in spring/summer months and can be prevented through a vaccine.

What are the signs and symptoms of chickenpox?

Chickenpox often starts with a fever, headache and sore throat. These symptoms may last for a few days, with the fever in the 38.3°–38.8°C range.

The red, itchy skin rash usually starts on the belly or back and face a few days after the first symptoms and then it spreads to almost everywhere else on the body, including the scalp, mouth, legs and genitals.The rash begins as small red bumps that look like tiny insect bites. After a few days, they develop into blisters filled with fluid. These blisters later break open, leaving open sores, which crust over to become scabs.

What causes chickenpox?

Chickenpox is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which can also cause a painful skin rash called shingles in adults. Kids who are vaccinated against chickenpox are much less likely to develop shingles when they get older.

Is chickenpox contagious?

Chickenpox is very contagious. Most kids with a sibling who's infected will also get it (if they haven't already had the infection or the vaccine), showing symptoms about ten to fourteen days after the first child does. The chickenpox virus can be spread through coughing or sneezing or after touching the blisters. Chickenpox is contagious from about 2 days before the rash starts until all the blisters are crusted over.

Because chickenpox is so contagious, children should stay home and rest until the rash is gone and all blisters have completely dried. This usually takes about 1 week. If you're unsure about whether your child is ready to return to school, ask your doctor.

How is chickenpox treated?

Chickenpox is caused by a virus, so antibiotics can't treat it. But antibiotics are needed if bacteria infect the sores. This can happen when kids scratch and pick at the blisters.

How can I help my child feel better?

To help relieve the itchiness and discomfort of chickenpox:

  • Use cool wet compresses
  • Give baths in lukewarm water every 3–4 hours for the first few days.
  • Use antipruritic washes and creams that are fragrance-free and soap-free that can be bought from the pharmacy.
  • Pat (don't rub) the body dry.
  • Put calamine lotion or antipruritic body lotions on itchy areas, but don't use it on the face, especially near the eyes.
  • Ask your doctor or pharmacist about pain-relieving creams to apply to sores in the genital area.

To prevent scratching:

  • Put gloves on your child's hands to avoid scratching during sleep.
  • Trim fingernails and keep them clean.
  • Ask your doctor or pharmacist if an antihistamine is indicated to help reduce itching.

If your child has blisters in the mouth:

  • Give cold, soft, bland foods because chickenpox in the mouth can make it hard to drink or eat.
  • Avoid anything acidic or salty, like orange juice or crisps.

Important tip: Never give aspirin to kids with chickenpox. It can lead to a serious illness called Reye syndrome.

6. Croup

Croup is characterised by a telltale 'barking' cough, often compared to the sound of a dog's bark and a raspy voice, as well as a squeaky voice.

What are the symptoms of croup?

At first, you may notice that your child is exhibiting cold symptoms like a stuffy or runny nose and a slight fever. As it progresses your kid may become hoarse and develop the barking cough. If the airways continue to swell, breathing gets harder. In serious cases, a child may appear pale or have a bluish colour around the mouth. Symptoms of croup are often worse at night and when a child is upset or crying.

What Causes Croup?

The same viruses that cause the common cold also cause croup. Most often seen from September to January croup can affect kids up to age 5.

How Is Croup Treated?

Most cases of croup are mild and can be treated at home. Try to keep your child calm as crying can make croup worse, while breathing in moist air can help kids feel better.

To help your child breathe in moist air:

  • Use a cool-mist humidifier or run a hot shower to create a steam-filled bathroom where you can sit with your child for 10 minutes. Breathing in the mist will sometimes stop the severe coughing.
  • In cooler weather, taking your child outside or even to the seaside for a few minutes to breathe in the cool air may ease symptoms. You also can try taking your child for a drive with the car windows slightly lowered.

It is important to keep children hydrated by giving them lots of water. Kids with croup also should get lots of rest.

Some kids need a breathing treatment that can be given in the hospital or a steroid medicine to reduce swelling in the airway. Keep in close contact with your paediatrician so he or she can assess if your child needs steroid treatment.

When should I call my health care provider?

Call your doctor or get immediate medical care if your child:

  • Has trouble breathing, including very fast or difficult breathing
  • Is too out of breath to talk
  • Is pale or bluish around the mouth
  • Is drooling or has trouble swallowing
  • Is very tired or sleepy or hard to awaken
  • Is dehydrated (signs include a dry or sticky mouth, few or no tears when crying, sunken eyes, thirst, peeing less)

7. Urinary Tract Infections

Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are quite common in kids. A child with a UTI may exhibit fever, throw up or be fussy. Older kids may complain about pain when passing urine or complain that they need to pee a lot or have lower belly pain.

Kids with UTIs need to see a doctor. These infections won't get better on their own. UTIs are easy to treat and usually clear up in a week or so.

Taking antibiotics kills the bacteria causing the infection. To be sure antibiotics work, you must give all the prescribed doses — even when your child starts feeling better.

What Are the Signs of a UTI?

Most UTIs happen in the lower part of the urinary tract. This is called cystitis. A child with cystitis may have:

  • Pain, burning or a stinging sensation when peeing
  • An increased urge or more frequent need to pee
  • Fever
  • Waking up at night a lot to go to the bathroom
  • Belly pain generally below the belly button
  • Foul-smelling pee that may look cloudy or contain blood

Who Gets UTIs?

UTIs are much more common in girls because a girl's urethra is shorter and closer to the anus. Uncircumcised boys younger than 1 year also have a slightly higher risk for a UTI.

Other risk factors for a UTI include:

  • A problem in the urinary tract (for example, a malformed kidney)
  • Poor toilet and hygiene habits
  • Family history of UTIs

UTIs are easy to treat, but it's important to catch them early. Undiagnosed or untreated UTIs can lead to kidney damage.

How Are UTIs Diagnosed?

To diagnose a UTI, health care providers ask questions about what's going on, do a physical exam and take a sample of urine for testing. Older children will be asked to give a sample in a container, but in children still wearing diapers, it's a bit more complex and a catheter is generally used.

How Are UTIs Treated?

UTIs are generally treated with antibiotics. After several days of antibiotics, your doctor may repeat tests to confirm that the infection is gone. It's important to make sure of this because an incompletely treated UTI can come back or spread.

If a child complains of severe pain when urinating, the doctor may also prescribe medicine that numbs the lining of the urinary tract. (This medication temporarily causes the pee to turn orange.

Encourage your child to drink plenty of fluids, but avoid beverages containing caffeine, such as soda and iced tea. High sugar drinks should also be avoided as much as possible. Symptoms should improve within 2 to 3 days after antibiotics are started.

Can UTIs Be Prevented?

In infants and toddlers, frequent diaper changes can help prevent the spread of bacteria that cause UTIs. When kids are potty trained, it's important to teach them good hygiene. Girls should know to wipe from front to rear — not rear to front.

School-age girls should avoid bubble baths and strong soaps that might cause irritation, while they should wear cotton underwear instead of nylon because it's less likely to encourage bacterial growth. Girls who suffer from frequent UTIs should also be encouraged to use an intimate wash to learn how to keep vaginal flora healthy.

All kids should be taught not to 'hold it' when they have to go because pee that stays in the bladder gives bacteria a good place to grow. Kids should drink plenty of fluids and avoid caffeine, which can irritate the bladder. Most UTIs are cured within a week with treatment.

When to Call the Doctor?

Call your doctor immediately if your child has an unexplained fever with shaking chills, especially if there's also back pain or any type of pain when peeing and if the urine has a foul smell. Call the doctor if your infant has a fever, feeds poorly, vomits or seems irritable.

8. Hand Foot and Mouth disease

Hand, foot and mouth disease (HFM) is a common viral infection. It causes painful red blisters around and inside the mouth and throat, as well as on the hands, feet and diaper area.

It is highly contagious and spreads through contact with unwashed hands, faeces, saliva, and even mucus. Kids under age 5 are most at risk for HFM, as infections are very common in childcare centres and other places where kids are in close quarters.

Kids will often present with a fever for a few days and not eat much as the sores in their mouth will usually bother them. Symptoms usually clear up within a week and kids recover completely.

There's no cure for HFM and no vaccine to prevent it, but your doctor can recommend home care to make your child more comfortable during recovery.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease (HFM)?

The blisters are red with a bubble of fluid on top. The soles of the feet and the palms of the hands may have a rash that can look like flat red spots or red blisters.

It can be hard for parents to tell if a child (especially a very young one) has HFM. Since very young kids might not be able to communicate, but if a child stops eating or drinking, it's a sign that something is wrong.

Other symptoms include:

  • Fever, muscle aches or other flu-like symptoms.
  • The child becomes irritable or sleeps more than usual.
  • It begins drooling (due to painful swallowing).
  • Only wants to drink cold fluids.

How Is HFM Treated?

Cold foods like ice cream, smoothies and popsicles help by numbing the area and will be a welcome treat for kids who have trouble swallowing. Avoid hot drinks, acidic foods (citrus juice, tomato sauce, etc.), sodas and sugary foods because they can make the pain worse. Wash the skin with lukewarm soap and water, and pat dry. 

Make sure your child drinks plenty of fluids to stay hydrated. Call your doctor if your child remains very irritable, is sluggish, or seems to be getting worse. Also, call if you see signs of dehydration.

Can Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease (HFM) Be Prevented?

Hand washing is the best protection. Remind everyone in your family to wash their hands well and often. Shared toys in childcare centres should be cleaned often with a disinfectant. Keep kids home from school while they have a fever or open blisters on the skin and in the mouth.

Nothing could be more worrying to parents that a child who is fighting a cold, nursing a cough or has a tummy ache. However, as kids are exposed to all kids or germs, it is expected that they get ill every now and again. This is why it's important to learn how to identify the symptoms, how to relieve your child's discomfort and when to get in touch with your doctor should the symptoms become severe. Alternatively, visit these hospitals.

Keep on discovering with Yellow!


Marisabelle Bonnici
About Marisabelle Bonnici

Marisabelle, also known as Belle is a pharmacist by profession with a passion for healthcare, photography, writing and travelling. Belle completely changed her life over the past two years as she was no longer happy with a high paced stressful life so she changed her lifestyle; lost 43kg; started a blog called Roadtobelle and decided to pursue her passion of helping people with their health through her blog and working as freelance pharmacist. 

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