Germ Patrol: Remedies for 8 Common Winter Illnesses
Here, learn about the most common childhood maladies and the best treatments for them -- so you don't freak out when your child comes down with something this season.
Chances your child will catch it: 99 percent. Young kids typically get three to 10 colds every year.
Symptoms: A runny nose, nasal congestion, sneezing, cough, sore throat, headache, and mild fever.
Contagious? Yes, for about five days.
Rx: Make sure your child gets plenty of fluids and rest. Use a cool-mist humidifier. Give her infants' or children's ibuprofen or acetaminophen to reduce the fever and achiness and saline nose drops if she's congested. Avoid cold medication if your child is under 6.
You need to know: Cold germs can live on toys, door handles, and other surfaces for up to two days. There are more than 200 cold-causing viruses, so chances are your child will catch a different bug each time. But she's more likely to stay healthy if you teach her to avoid touching her eyes and nose and to wash her hands frequently (and thoroughly). Reduce your child's exposure to germs by wiping down grocery carts, restaurant tabletops, and high chairs before using them.
RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus)
Chances your child will catch it: 90 percent of children are infected by age 2.
Symptoms: RSV causes common cold symptoms and in up to 40 percent of cases triggers bronchiolitis, an infection of the small airways, which leads to wheezing, rapid breathing, and a persistent cough.
Contagious? Yes, both during the incubation period (four to six days) and for three to eight days afterward.
Rx: Treat RSV as you would a cold. But call your doctor ASAP if your child has fast or labored breathing. He might need inhaled medication or, in severe cases, could require hospitalization.
You need to know: Air irritants make RSV symptoms worse, so avoid exposing your child to cigarette smoke, wood-burning fireplaces, and perfumes, says Ellen Schumann, MD, a pediatrician at Marshfield Clinic in Weston, Wisconsin.
Stomach Flu (Viral Gastroenteritis)
Chances your child will catch it: 90 percent of kids will get at least one stomach bug by age 4.
Symptoms: Vomiting, diarrhea, and fever.
Contagious? Extremely. Your child is highly infectious for as long as she has diarrhea, and the virus can live in her stool for several weeks after that.
Rx: Give your child plenty of fluids (such as water and Pedialyte) to prevent dehydration. If she can't hold anything down, have her take small sips through a straw or from a spoon or a dropper. You can also try ice pops and Jell-O -- the sweet taste might make it more fun to eat.
You need to know: Thanks to the relatively new rotavirus oral vaccine (which is safe for babies 2 months and older), 79 percent fewer children now get this serious stomach bug.
Chances your child will catch it: 77 percent of children come down with this virus by age 2.
Symptoms: Although the telltale sign is a red rash across the body that can last for a few days, most infected kids simply develop a fever, a cough, and possibly diarrhea. "Many parents don't ever know their child has had roseola," says Philip R. Fischer, MD, medical director of Mayo Eugenio Litta Children's Hospital, in Rochester, Minnesota. "Without the rash, it just seems like a fever or a cold."
Contagious? Your child can infect others until his fever breaks, but the rash itself isn't contagious.
Rx: Treat the fever with ibuprofen (for children 6 months and older) or acetaminophen. Simply ignore the rash, which looks a bit like measles but isn't itchy or painful and will go away on its own.
You need to know: The virus that causes roseola can stay in the body and reactivate, so it's possible your child could get it again.
Chances your child will catch it: 75 percent of kids have one by age 3.
Symptoms: Your child will likely have a fever, pull at her ears, and be irritable. She may also have trouble sleeping.
Contagious? No, but the cold that led to the ear infection probably is.
Rx: Ibuprofen or acetaminophen will reduce the pain and fever. Your pediatrician may prescribe antibiotics or wait to see if the infection clears up on its own. Also try this remedy from Richard Burnstine, MD, clinical professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, in Chicago: Place a paper towel in the bottom of a small plastic cup, pour in a little hot water, squeeze off the excess liquid into a sink, and put the cup over your child's ear. The warm moisture will ease her pain.
You need to know: An ear infection can literally appear overnight. "The ear may look perfectly fine one day, and the next day there's a full-blown flare-up," says Jennifer Shu, MD, a Parents advisor and editor of American Academy of Pediatrics' Baby & Child Health.
Chances your child will catch it: Up to 40 percent of all kids come down with the flu each year.
Symptoms: High fever, body aches, chills, sore throat, cough, runny nose.
Contagious? Yes -- your child could pass it on for about two weeks.
Rx: The best medicine is prevention: Make sure your child gets a flu shot every fall (once he's at least 6 months old). If the virus is diagnosed within 48 hours and he's at least a year old, your doctor may give him Tamiflu to reduce the symptoms and duration of the illness. Otherwise, simply treat it as you would a common cold.
You need to know: Flu shots won't completely protect your child since different strains of the virus hit every winter, but they're still well worth getting: Kids under 2 (and those of any age who have asthma) are at high risk for complications -- including dehydration and breathing problems -- that may require hospitalization.
Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease
Chances your child will catch it: 20 percent.
Symptoms: Painful, blister-like sores in the mouth and bumps on the palms, fingers, and soles of the feet, often accompanied by fever. Depending on the severity of the sores, your child may not want to eat, drink, or walk.
Contagious? Yes, especially while she has symptoms (which usually last for about a week).
Rx: Treat with pain relievers and give her ice pops, yogurt, and other cool, smooth foods. Avoid anything tart, salty, or spicy. And if she's at least 6 months old, try this "magic mouthwash" remedy for relieving sores, from Debra Goldenring, MD, a pediatrician in Livingston, New Jersey: Mix half a teaspoon each of a liquid antacid (like Mylanta) and Benadryl, then dab it on your child's gums, tongue, and the inside of her cheeks with a cotton swab.
You need to know: The coxsackievirus can remain in your child's stool for several weeks, so wash your hands thoroughly after a diaper change.
Chances your child will catch it: About 16 percent by the time she's 6.
Symptoms: This viral infection of the voice box and windpipe causes a barking, seal-like cough, stridor (a harsh, high-pitched noise when your child takes a breath), and hoarseness. All tend to be more severe at night.
Contagious? The viruses that cause croup in little kids are contagious, but older children and adults who are infected are likely to just get a cold.
Rx: Run a hot shower, and have your child sit in the steamy bathroom until his symptoms ease. Taking him outside into the cold air may be even more effective at stopping the cough. If it's warm out, simply open your freezer and have him breathe deeply, suggests Richard Judelsohn, MD, a pediatrician in Buffalo. Your doctor may prescribe steroids for serious cases.
You need to know: If your child seems to be having difficulty breathing or her ribs are pulling in and out with each breath, call your doctor or head for the ER right away.
Germ-Proof Your Child
- Have your child wash her hands before meals, after using the bathroom, or whenever she touches other kids, pets, or communal toys. Make sure she scrubs for 20 seconds -- about the time it takes to sing "Happy Birthday" twice.
- Always keep baby wipes or a sanitizing gel in your diaper bag, your purse, and the car.
- Teach your child to sneeze or cough into a tissue. If he doesn't have one handy, he should use the crook of his elbow.
- Clean toys weekly with hot soapy water or a sanitizing spray.
- If a bottle, sippy cup, or pacifier falls on the floor, always wash it before giving it back to your child. "There's no three-second rule," says Dr. Jennifer Shu. "If it touches the ground, it's dirty."
- Steer clear of toys and books in the waiting room at the doctor's office, which are loaded with germs. Take along your own instead.
- Don't share personal objects with your child -- including utensils, toothbrushes, cups, washcloths, towels, and combs -- and don't let siblings share them either.
Originally published in the November 2008 issue of Parents magazine.
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