What to Do About Recurring Illnesses

Why your child may be prone to repeat bouts of colds, ear infections, strep throat, pneumonia, or other ailments -- and what you can do to help.

A Common Problem

At 7 months, our daughter got her first ear infection. It lasted eight months. Eve screamed and wailed. She slept upright in a baby car seat -- wedged into her crib -- and we plied her with bubblegum-pink antibiotics. The infection was a continuous loop, rebounding every time a prescription lapsed. The drugs bestowed thrush and diarrhea. Herbal remedies, massage, warm compresses, and eardrops didn't budge the infection.

Neither did the specialist whom we begged for ear tubes. "Wait," he counseled. Sure enough, one day it vanished, though I have no idea why.

Ear infections didn't run in our families. Eve was in daycare, but a scrupulously well-scrubbed one. She was breastfed. Yet, somehow, the middle ear was her weak spot -- harboring a stubborn infection that frustrated and baffled us. It didn't seem normal. But, it turns out, it was.

"Why do some babies and young children get sick over and over again? I get asked that question all the time," says David W. Kimberlin, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "The answer is, it's normal for young kids to have quite a few colds, ear infections, or gastrointestinal upsets in a single year," he says. "Children have an immature immune system. And they're encountering all the viruses, bacteria, and other antigens in the world for the first time."

Dr. Kimberlin, who has three children of his own under the age of 6, has recently gained a new appreciation for the issue. "The number of normal sicknesses a child can have is astonishing," he says. "That doesn't make it any easier for the family, but it might reduce the worry."

But why does your kid get four ear infections, while the neighbor's toddler skates by with just one? Why does one child vomit regularly, while another barely spits up? Is it mere coincidence, or are some kids particularly vulnerable to specific illnesses? We asked the experts to help us explore this mystery. Here's what we found out about some common childhood conditions.

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