Common Childhood Infections
There was a time when childhood infections killed thousands of children. Today,
vaccines protect against many of those infections, but you cannot immunize
your child against every infectious disease. If you know the signs and
symptoms of the most common childhood infections, you can at least help your
sick child get better. It is also important to know when to contact your
pediatrician. Do so if you see signs of any of the following illnesses and are
concerned (especially if your child is under 2 months of age). Use the following
information as a guide to common childhood infections.
Causes of infections
Most infections in children are caused by viruses, but they can also be caused
by bacteria. Bacteria can live in certain parts of the body without causing any
harm. They cause infections when they move to parts of the body where they
do not belong. They can also come into the body from the outside; in the body
they can cause an infection that requires treatment with an antibiotic. Most
viral diseases are not treated with an antibiotic because antibiotics do not work
on viruses. Instead, the body gets rid of viruses on its own. When your child
has a virus, your pediatrician will tell you how to make your child more
comfortable. You should also make sure your child gets plenty of rest and eats
a balanced diet.
We all know the symptoms of the common cold — sneezing, watery eyes, a
cough, and a stuffy, runny nose. A child with a cold will often be cranky and
have a mild fever and a headache.
Since there are hundreds of viruses that cause colds, there is still no vaccine for
the common cold. Symptoms can be relieved with:
• a cool-mist vaporizer
• acetaminophen to bring down a fever
• lots of fluids
A cold usually lasts about a week.
Any fever should appear at the beginning of
the cold and then go away. Contact your pediatrician if:
• a fever continues or goes up during the week,
• symptoms seem to get worse after a week, or
• your child has problems breathing or ear pain.
Occasionally, children with colds will develop an earache. Since younger infants
cannot complain of ear pain, be on the lookout for other signs. Fussiness, fever,
or fluid draining from your child’s ear may mean your child has an ear infection.
If your child has any of those symptoms, your pediatrician will examine her to
determine if an ear infection is present. If there is one, he or she may prescribe
an antibiotic to kill the bacteria that cause the infection. Be sure to give your
child the full dose of the antibiotic for the whole time it is prescribed. This is
important even if symptoms go away within a few days. You can give
acetaminophen (in a dose recommended by your pediatrician) to ease any ear
pain, but do not give aspirin. Aspirin has been linked with Reye syndrome, a
serious disease that affects the liver and brain. After your child finishes the
antibiotic, the pediatrician should check her ears again. Even after the pain and
fever have gone, fluid can still remain. This can lead to more infections or future
Strep throat is a bacterial infection. On rare occasions it can lead to serious
problems if not treated. Strep usually develops in children over 3 years of age.
Signs of strep include a sore throat, fever, and swollen glands in the neck. (If
there is also a skin rash, the condition is called scarlet fever.) Since many
viruses can cause the same symptoms as strep, your pediatrician will need to
test for strep to be sure your child has it. To do this, he or she will obtain a
throat culture or do a rapid strep test. If your child does have strep throat,
your pediatrician will prescribe an antibiotic that will destroy the strep germ.
After 24 to 36 hours of antibiotic treatment, your child is no longer contagious
and should start to feel better. Remember to have your child finish all the
medicine. If you stop treatment too early, the infection may come back or cause
If not treated, strep throat can lead to rheumatic fever. This can cause damage
to the heart and swelling of the joints. Untreated strep throat can also lead to
kidney disease and a number of other health problems.
When your child has a cold, the sinuses around his nose often get stuffy and
swollen. Sometimes the mucus in the sinuses may get infected with bacteria.
When this happens, your child has a sinus infection. Sinusitis usually develops
after your child has had a cold for at least 10 days. Signs of sinusitis are:
• persistent nasal discharge
• a cough during the day and night, that often gets worse at night
• tenderness in the face
An antibiotic will destroy the bacteria that cause sinusitis.
Croup is a scary illness for most parents because of its symptoms. Your child
may go to bed with a runny nose and mild cough, but wake up during the night
with a cough that sounds like a seal’s bark. Croup is usually caused by a viral
infection in and around the voice box. Your child’s breathing may become noisy
and labored, a condition called stridor. Your child may or may not have a fever.
Most cases of croup can be handled at home with the advice of your
pediatrician. A cool-mist vaporizer may help. If you do not have one, turn on the
hot water in your shower or bathtub and let the bathroom fill up with steam.
Stay with your child in the bathroom while he breathes in the steam for a few
minutes. Keep a close eye on your child so that he does not burn himself with
the hot water. (Try sitting with your child on your lap, and read a short story to
pass the time.) Or you could take your child for a walk in the cool night air. This
may help your child to breathe better. If your child has a severe case of croup,
your pediatrician may recommend a hospital stay. During the stay, your child
may need to be inside a plastic tent called a croup tent. To reduce the swelling
around the voice box, doctors may give your child a cortisone medication or a
medication to inhale.