When Adults Get Kid Illnesses

An illness that hardly affects your child can put you out of commission for weeks or longer.

Right before Memorial Day weekend, Mariane Liebowitz, a lawyer and mother of two in Scarsdale, New York, woke up in the middle of the night with excruciating pain in her hips, knees, and back. Since she'd been training for her first triathlon, she figured her symptoms were from her aggressive workouts. But a week later, as the pain worsened, she decided to see her doctor.

"I mentioned that my son Cole, who's 8, had had fifth disease a few weeks back," says Liebowitz. "All he really had was a flat rash and a little back pain. No big deal." That was all her doctor needed to hear for a diagnosis: Liebowitz had also contracted the virus. "She said I'd probably have a few more weeks of severe arthritic pain, fatigue, and cold-like symptoms, followed by a horrific cough,'' recalls Liebowitz, who didn't feel normal for nearly two more months. She slogged through the workday and slept on the couch for weeks because her cough was so bad that her husband couldn't sleep either. "I actually vomited at work from coughing so much," she says.

Like Liebowitz, many parents learn the hard way that so-called "kid illnesses" may be no big deal for children -- but they can be brutal for grown-ups. In fact, some childhood diseases can even be life-threatening in adults. While we expect to get an occasional cold or sore throat, we don't anticipate being a lot sicker than our kids are with the very same bacteria or virus. But doctors see it all the time.

Thanks to all the bugs you battled over the years, the antibodies you've built up mount a strong response to any invaders. Strangely, the fact that your immune system is more robust is what makes you feel worse than your kid. "Those misery-making symptoms -- fever, aches, phlegm -- are signs that your body's inflammatory response is kicking into high gear," says Stanley Spinner, M.D., chief medical officer at Texas Children's Pediatrics in Houston.

A child's body often deals with infections more effectively and faster than an older person's body can, explains Charles Shubin, M.D., director of pediatrics at Mercy Family Health, in Baltimore, and assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Medical School. If you give a squirt of acetaminophen to a child with a 102°F fever, in 20 minutes he might be running around like nothing's wrong. But an adult who has a 102°F fever? She feels like she's at death's door. Watch out for these common kid-to-adult illnesses.

Fifth Disease

Dubbed the "slapped-cheek disease" thanks to the bright-red cheeks that are its hallmark, fifth disease can begin in kids as nasal congestion, swollen glands, low-grade fever, and muscle soreness. The facial rash looks lacy as it spreads to the torso, arms, and legs. As with many viral illnesses, kids are most contagious a few days to a week before the symptoms appear. Though the rash may last for up to ten days, the fever will break sooner.

What to expect Adults don't often get the typical lacy rash, but as Liebowitz discovered, swelling or arthritic pain, particularly in the hands, coupled with severe flu-like symptoms, can linger for months or longer.

Prevent it First, a bit of good news: "Almost 50 percent of women are already immune to fifth disease by the time they even think about having kids," says Harley A. Rotbart, M.D., Parents advisor and professor and vice chair emeritus of pediatrics at Children's Hospital Colorado in Aurora. If your child has fifth disease and you're thinking of getting pregnant, talk to your doctor. Infection with parvovirus B19, which causes fifth disease, carries a slight risk of miscarriage, as well as severe anemia in an unborn baby, although serious problems occur in less than 5 percent of women who become infected during pregnancy, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Your doctor can run blood tests to see whether you're immune and monitor your pregnancy if necessary.

Hepatitis A

One of several viruses that cause liver inflammation, hepatitis A is usually so mild in babies and young children you may not even know they have it. It's spread when microscopic particles of feces are ingested from contaminated food, drinks, or contact with an infected person. Since little kids touch everything and put their hands in their mouth, they easily transmit this highly contagious virus to older siblings and parents, who can get quite sick. (It's diagnosed with a blood test.) U.S. outbreaks have dropped significantly since the debut of a hepatitis A vaccine in the late 1990s.

What to expect Kids over 6 and adults may develop fever, vomiting, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, fatigue, and jaundice that can last months and sometimes require hospitalization.

Prevent it Make sure you and any other caregivers wash your hands after changing your baby's diaper or preparing food. Between their first and second birthday, kids should get the two-dose hepatitis A vaccine. You should get vaccinated if you're adopting a child from overseas or traveling to Mexico, Asia (except Japan), Africa, Eastern Europe, or Central or South America.

Chicken Pox

Caused by the varicella-zoster virus, chicken pox can lead to serious, sometimes fatal, complications even in healthy adults; people over 60; and anyone whose immune system is weakened by cancer, diabetes, heart disease, or an autoimmune disease. (Most people who get chicken pox will be immune to it later in life, so if you had it as a kid, you probably won't get it again.) Thanks to the vaccine, first introduced as a one-dose shot in 1995 and now given in two doses, the chance of either kids or adults getting chicken pox has been greatly reduced.

What to expect Kids and adults develop red bumps or blisters that come in waves, mostly on the scalp, arms, legs, and trunk, and last five to ten days. Other symptoms include fever, coughing, and headache. Severe cases -- which are rare -- can lead to bleeding disorders, sterility in men, swelling of the brain, and death.

Prevent it Make sure kids get their first dose of varicella vaccine at 12 to 15 months, and a booster at 4 to 6 years. If you've been exposed and never had chicken pox, get the two-dose vaccine, given four weeks apart, which will prevent or at least ease the severity of the illness. Since the virus can pass from a pregnant woman to her fetus, possibly causing birth defects, anyone who is pregnant or thinking about getting pregnant should get a blood test first to confirm immunity. (You don't need the blood test if you're certain you've had chicken pox.) If you do get sick while pregnant, ask your doctor about antiviral drugs, which may shorten the duration of the illness, and OTC painkillers to ease symptoms.


The same bug that causes fleeting symptoms in kids can morph into something entirely different in an adult. A few days after her then 6-month-old son came down with Coxsackievirus, Michaela Garibaldi, of Fairfield, Connecticut, felt ill. "Joey had sores in the back of his mouth, a low-grade fever, and was fussy," recalls Garibaldi, Parents' managing editor. "But he was back to his old self within three or four days." She, however, developed a headache, nausea, and dizziness that left her feeling "as if my head was floating above my body," Garibaldi says. A neurologist said that the virus had settled in her inner ear, causing a condition called labyrinthitis. "For two weeks I had such bad vertigo that it felt like I was on a rocking boat," she explains.

There are more than 20 strains of Coxsackievirus, all members of the enterovirus family. They live in the digestive tract and spread when people cough, sneeze, or fail to wash their hands or clean surfaces contaminated by feces. This group of viruses is highly contagious and thrives in child-care centers and preschools. One strain causes the hand-foot-mouth disease (HFMD) that Joey had; it's one of the most common strains of the virus in infants and kids under 5.

What to expect Kids may first have blisters inside their mouth followed by a rash on their hands and feet. The virus, which can include diarrhea and a sore throat similar to strep, usually runs its course in about a week but can hang on longer. OTC meds can ease pain and fever. Dr. Shubin also suggests using Chloraseptic spray or combining 1 teaspoon each of Maalox and Benadryl liquid and dabbing it directly on the affected areas. Stay well hydrated, since mouth sores make it hard to eat or drink. Though very rare, serious complications can occur, such as inflammation of the membranes surrounding the heart, brain, and lungs. Less dangerous conditions like those that Garibaldi experienced are also uncommon.

Prevent it Unfortunately, Coxsackie is difficult to prevent. Your best move is to ramp up home hygiene to try to keep this and other viruses at bay.

Originally published in the December 2014 issue of Parents magazine.

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