Winter has arrived, and along with it comes cold and flu season. Doctors’ offices, ERs, and hospitals fill up with kids this time of year as we all do our best to keep everyone healthy. Here is some basic information on some of the more common winter illnesses and some tips on how to keep your family healthy this winter.
A cold is a viral infection marked by runny nose or nasal congestion, sore throat, cough, or headache. Children may also have fevers early in the illness. The fevers are usually low grade. Colds are caused by many different types of virus and can occur year round, although they are most frequent in the winter months. Most colds worsen over 3-5 days and then begin to improve with complete resolution of symptoms in about 7-10 days. Children often get 10 or more colds per year! These five home remedies are worth trying.
Bronchiolitis is a common viral respiratory infection in young children. It is most frequently seen in children less than 12 months old. Symptoms include nasal congestion, cough, low-grade fevers, and wheezing. RSV, a particular virus, is one common cause of bronchiolitis, although many different viruses can cause bronchiolitis. It often starts similar to a common cold and then can progress into a more serious illness with wheezing, difficulty breathing, and dehydration. Similar to a cold the symptoms tend to worsen over the first several days and then slowly begin to improve. Most children do well at home, but some children will need to be hospitalized due to breathing problems or dehydration. The cough following this illness can last two weeks or more.
Influenza is more commonly known as “the Flu”. It usually comes on quickly with high fever, cough, sore throat, headache, and muscle aches and pains. The fever often lasts up to 5 days. There are some antiviral medications available to help fight the flu; however, these mediations only shorten illness duration by 1-2 days and must be started promptly to be helpful. Generally, these mediations are only recommended for children at risk for more serious complications or hospitalization from the flu. The best way to avoid this illness in yourself and your family is to make sure every gets their annual flu vaccine. Click here for tips on preventing the flu, and click here for more information on what separates the flu from other illnesses.
Croup often comes on suddenly in the middle of the night. You may wake up to your child coughing loudly. The croup cough often is described as “barking” or “like a seal”. Your child may also be making a high-pitched noise while breathing – physicians call this stridor. Children with mild and moderate coughs can often be supported at home. Frequently, croup symptoms will improve with exposure to cool dry air (bundle your child up and take them outside) or hot humid air (steam up the bathroom). For children with moderate to severe cough or trouble breathing, croup often leads to a middle of the night ER visit. Luckily, croup can usually be easily treated in the ER with nebulized treatments and steroids.
Unlike the other common winter illness, pneumonia is often caused by a bacterial infection. It can present in many different ways. Sometimes it starts as a cold that just continues to worsen, other times it will seem like your child was initially getting better when suddenly they will worsen again. If your child has had a cold for several days and suddenly develops a high fever and worsening cough, this could be a sign of pneumonia and you should bring your child in for evaluation. Any time you feel that your child is having trouble breathing you should seek prompt healthcare evaluation and pneumonia can quickly worsen. Most of the time pneumonia can be treated on an outpatient basis with antibiotics, but some children with more severe cases will require hospitalization.
Strep is most often seen in school-aged children. Children frequently present with sore throat, headache, and stomachache. Some children will get high fevers or vomit. Strep throat does not cause cold symptoms or coughing. It can usually be easily treated with antibiotics, and children with strep throat should be treated to help prevent later complications from this infection. Children should stay home from school and other activities until after they have been on antibiotics for 24 hours.
Keeping kids healthy and out of the doctor’s office can be a challenge in the winter months. Teach your children good hand hygiene and how to cover their mouths (with their elbow) with coughing or sneezing. If you have a young infant at home, try to avoid crowded areas or visiting with people who are known to be ill. If your child is sick, please keep them home from school or daycare so you don’t spread the illness to other children or staff members. In general, your child can return to school once their fever has been gone for 24 hours (with no Tylenol or Ibuprofen needed) and when symptoms are otherwise improving.