Winter Illnesses

Is it a cold? Bronchitis? Our guide demystifies four of the most common cold-weather ailments.

Introduction

"My throat hurts!" "I'm hot!" "I can't breathe!"

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It's winter, which brings, along with the cold weather, the onset of some dreaded childhood illnesses. It can be hard to figure out exactly which one your child may have, because the most common conditions share many symptoms. We've outlined them all to help you quickly determine the one most likely affecting your child. Please note that this information is not meant to make a definitive diagnosis; you should always consult your pediatrician with questions about your child's health.

Cold
Children usually get six to 10 colds every year, primarily during winter. Colds are caused by a virus that infects the nose, sinuses, throat, and airways, and they're often spread through contact with mucus. Symptoms include sneezing, a stuffy and/or runny nose, coughing, scratchy sore throat, and red, watery eyes. Other signs: chills, aches, a mild fever, and swollen lymph glands. Colds can be tough to spot in infants, so look for changes in breathing, eating, and sleeping patterns. Since colds are viral infections, there's no ideal treatment, but fluids and rest, plus decongestants, cough syrups, and antihistamines, can help ease symptoms. See your pediatrician if your child has difficulty breathing or develops a high fever, severe headache, chest pain, or ear pain. Always check with your doctor before giving over-the-counter medications; she can suggest the best choice and proper dosage.

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Flu
Between 10% and 20% of the population contracts the flu, or influenza, each year. Children are two to three times more likely to get the illness than healthy adults. The flu is caused by a virus that infects the lungs and airways and can be spread through direct contact or airborne droplets from an infected person's cough or sneeze. Symptoms include a sudden fever, usually above 101°, accompanied by chills and shakes, extreme fatigue, muscle aches, a hacking cough, nausea, and vomiting. Treatment includes rest, fluids, and acetaminophen or ibuprofen to reduce fever and aches (ask your doctor which one and how much to give). See your pediatrician if you suspect your infant has the flu; kids under 2 are the most vulnerable to the illness. Also see the doctor if your child's cough worsens, he has trouble breathing or a persistent high fever, or he produces bloody mucus -- all signs of pneumonia. And never give your child cold medicine without checking with your doctor first.

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