Family Medicine

5 Common Childhood Illnesses (And How to Prevent Them)

If you’re a parent, you know that little kids get sick a lot. 

Between daycare, school, and (let’s be honest) less-than-perfect hygiene practices, kids are constantly being exposed to new germs. It takes time for the immune system to mature and fight off these germs, so it’s common for young children to come down with sniffles, coughs, and minor illnesses. 

Fortunately, there are ways to help prevent many of the most common childhood bugs and viruses. To keep your kid healthy and happy, family medicine provider Dr. Beth Herman shares prevention tips and valuable information about the five most common childhood illnesses.

Special Note on Coronavirus (COVID-19) in Children

As some kids begin returning to school in person, you may be worried about your child catching the coronavirus—and wondering about how to tell COVID-19 symptoms from regular cold or flu symptoms.

Scientists have noted that COVID-19 symptoms in kids aren’t always as severe as what adults may experience. Some kids may display no symptoms at all. It’s not clear why that is, but we know it doesn’t mean kids are immune to the coronavirus. It’s still possible for children to get very sick from the coronavirus.

Many symptoms of COVID-19 overlap with symptoms of other common childhood illnesses. Symptoms in children can include:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Fatigue (feeling tired)
  • Lack of appetite
  • Loss of taste or smell
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea and/or vomiting

If your child is exhibiting any of the above symptoms, call your child’s doctor right away. They can help you determine if your child needs to be tested and if they should stay home from school.

Prevention Tips for Common Childhood Illnesses

While different illnesses are caused by a variety of parasites, viruses, and bacteria, a lot of common childhood illnesses tend to spread in similar ways. That means taking a few preventative steps can help ward them off.

  • Get vaccinations. There’s a lot of misinformation about vaccines out there, but rest assured that all recommended childhood vaccines are scientifically proven to be safe and effective. Click here to view the recommended vaccination schedule for children up to age 18 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about vaccine safety.
  • Wash hands regularly. Getting your child into the habit of washing their hands is one of the most powerful ways to prevent illness. Encourage them to wash their hands before and after eating, after using the bathroom, and after coming home from playing outside or in a public area.
  • Cover coughs and sneezes. You and your child can help prevent the spread of illness by covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue or elbow. Remember to wash your hands after!
  • Disinfect toys, electronics, and communal objects. Bacteria and parasites can survive on some surfaces for many days. Use alcohol wipes or rubbing alcohol to clean favorite toys, tablets, phones, doorknobs, and any other commonly touched household object. Wash bath towels and bedsheets in hot water every week.
  • Eat healthy and exercise regularly. Following a healthy diet and exercising are powerful ways to boost the immune system. Click here to read more about childhood nutrition from the CDC.
  • Start good habits early. Explain early and often why good hygiene matters. Integrate good hygiene habits into daily routines—and don’t forget to tell your child when they’ve done a good job.

1. The Common Cold

Kids may get lots of colds throughout the year. Contrary to popular belief, colds are not caused by getting wet or being out in cold weather. Cold viruses are airborne, meaning they’re spread when a sick person coughs or sneezes.

The best way to prevent the common cold is to wash hands regularly and avoid contact with sick individuals when possible.

Symptoms of the common cold include:

  • Fever
  • Coughing/sneezing
  • Congestion/runny nose
  • Sore throat 
  • Body aches and pains
  • Fatigue (feeling tired)

Colds typically go away on their own after a few days of bed rest. Parents may give their children over-the-counter decongestants, antihistamines, and fever relievers—but make sure to follow the printed instructions for correct dosing. 

If your child’s symptoms don’t improve after a week, talk to a doctor.

2. The Flu 

Influenza viruses spread very easily, especially during flu season in the fall and winter months. The flu shares many symptoms with the common cold, but flu symptoms can be more severe. 

The most effective way to prevent the flu is to receive a flu vaccine every year. Most kids may be squeamish about receiving vaccine shots—but a shot once per year is better than being bedridden for days or even weeks.

Symptoms of the flu include:

  • High fever and/or chills
  • Severe body aches, pains, and/or headaches
  • Sore throat and/or cough
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue (feeling tired)

Doctors can test for the flu to confirm a diagnosis and may prescribe medication as treatment. Children should stay home from school if they have the flu, both to avoid spreading the virus and in order to get lots of bed rest.

Call a doctor right away if your child is having difficulty breathing, has a fever over 103ºF (or 101ºF for babies between 3 and 6 months), or has a fever that lasts more than 3 days.

3. Chickenpox

If you’re a parent, you may remember chickenpox as being one of the most common childhood illnesses that everybody seemed to get. While chickenpox may only have mild side effects for some, it can still lead to severe complications or even death in children with weak immune systems.

Thankfully, chickenpox can be prevented with the chickenpox (varicella) vaccine. It’s recommended that kids get the varicella vaccine when they are between 12 and 15 months old, along with a booster shot when they’re between 4 and 6 years old.

The chickenpox virus is an airborne disease, meaning it spreads easily when an infected person sneezes and coughs. Symptoms to watch out for include:

  • A rash on the arms, legs, torso, and/or face, which may appear as raised red bumps or blisters
  • Fatigue or unexplained tiredness
  • Lack of appetite

Doctors will diagnose chickenpox by examining the telltale red rash. It can be treated with medicines like acetaminophen (NOT aspirin) and lotions to soothe the skin. Talk to your doctor if symptoms last longer than a week or if your child develops new symptoms, including a worsening rash or trouble breathing.

4. Strep Throat

Strep throat (streptococcal pharyngitis) is a bacterial infection that causes a sore, swollen throat. Kids should see a doctor for strep throat because most cases require medication to get better. Strep bacteria can travel through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes or it may be transferred on the surfaces of shared objects.

In addition to regular hand washing, kids should avoid sharing eating utensils, drinking glasses, and food with others. Wash lunchboxes and utensils in hot, soapy water every day.

Symptoms of strep throat include:

  • Sore or itchy throat
  • Red or inflamed tonsils
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Fever

Your family doctor can usually test for strep throat right in their office. They may then prescribe a course of antibiotic treatment.

It’s important for your child to take all of the antibiotics prescribed to them, even if they’re feeling better. That’s because some bacteria may remain after symptoms disappear. The bacteria can then multiply and make your child sick again. 

5. Pink Eye

Pink eye (conjunctivitis) is the inflammation of the eye and inner eyelid. Pink eye can have several causes, but is most commonly caused by viruses or bacteria that are transferred from a child’s hands to their eyes. Other kinds of conjunctivitis are caused by reactions to allergens like pollen, ragweed, or dust in the air.

Pink eye can be successfully avoided through regular hand washing and taking any prescribed allergy medications. Remind your kids to wash their hands after coming in from outside, after sharing toys, and before touching their faces or removing contact lenses.

Symptoms of pink eye include:

  • Pink or reddish discoloration of the white part of the eye
  • Itchiness or irritation of the eye
  • A gritty feeling, as if there’s sand or another irritant in the eye
  • Discharge from the eye
  • Excessive tear production
  • An eyelid that feels “sticky” or swollen
  • Blurry vision

A doctor will typically prescribe a special eye drop or ointment or antibiotic pill. Kids may also feel better with a warm compress over their eyes. Don’t let kids touch or rub their eyes—that can make the problem worse.

Pinkeye may be uncomfortable, but it usually doesn’t cause long-term complications. If symptoms get worse or don’t go away after a week of treatment, talk to your doctor for more options.

Book an Appointment with a Tampa Family Doctor 

Even if your child is healthy, you can still schedule an appointment to talk with your family doctor to learn more about common childhood illnesses and how to prevent them. And when your child does get sick, your family doctor will be there to diagnose and treat their illness so that they can get back to being a kid!

Click here or call 813-975-1727 to set up an appointment with family medicine specialist Dr. Beth Herman today. You can also request a virtual telemedicine appointment with Dr. Herman.

Disclaimer: This blog is not intended to substitute professional medical advice. Always talk with your doctor before starting or stopping medications or therapies.

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