6 kid illnesses that you didn't know you could get as an adult

Bet you never thought you could get fifth disease, roseola or chicken pox while caring for your sick kid. Here’s what happens when common child illnesses strike adults.

Photo: Stocksy United, illustrations: Justine Wong

When my son was 18 months old, he developed a mild fever, followed by a rash on his cheeks. Our paediatrician diagnosed him with fifth disease, which sounds like a medieval affliction but is actually a common illness in kids that’s generally nothing to worry about. We could look forward to a week or two with a cranky, rashy kid, and then he’d be back to his usual adorable self.

But a few days later, my husband woke up to find his fingers swollen like sausages. They were so stiff and painful he couldn’t button his own shirt. We rushed to an urgent-care centre and were surprised to learn he had caught fifth disease from our son.

Illnesses we consider to be the sole domain of kids can affect adults as well. In fact, we get them more often than we think, but because adults sometimes experience symptoms that are milder, more severe or radically different, we might not realize what’s making us feel sick. If my husband hadn’t gone to the doctor, we would never have guessed that his swollen hands stemmed from the same illness that had caused a fever and rash in our son.

Want to avoid catching your own version of your child’s sniffles, fevers and spots? Here’s what you need to know about common kids’ illnesses you can catch.

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Your ultimate guide to the most common kid illnesses

Parvovirus B19—a.k.a., Fifth Disease
This virus, which is characterized by bright red cheeks, is also known as slapped cheek syndrome. It’s spread through contact and droplets that come from sneezing or coughing.

You know your kid has it when:
She starts off with a fever, stuffy nose and headache. Several days later, a hot, red rash appears on her cheeks, and a lacy rash may also pop up on her arms, legs and torso. Fifth disease most commonly occurs in kids ages five to eight; it lasts about two weeks and then clears up on its own. Kids are contagious during the first few days of cold-like symptoms. Once the rash appears, you’re in the clear.

You know you have it when:
You have swelling and pain in your small joints, such as the hands, wrists, ankles, knees or feet, on both sides of the body—also known as symmetrical arthritis. More rarely, you can also get the same flu-like symptoms and rash your child had. No worries: You’ll recover in a week or so, no treatment needed, but stay home from work and rest, especially when you have a fever. If you had fifth disease as a kid, you’re generally protected from getting it again later in life.

If you get fifth disease when you’re expecting, particularly during the first half of your pregnancy, it can cause severe anemia in your baby in your baby—and, in rare cases, miscarriage. Since the illness is common in kids, if you work with children or have kids of your own, ask your doctor to test your immunity at the beginning of your pregnancy. If you’re not immune and are exposed to the virus through your work or your own kids, your doctor will test to see whether you’ve been infected. If you have, your baby will likely be monitored by ultrasound and may eventually receive a blood transfusion directly through the umbilical cord.

HHV-6—a.k.a., Roseola
Roseola is known for its distinct rash. It’s spread through droplets and contact.

You know your kid has it when:
He starts with a sudden high fever of up to 39.4°C (103°F), which lasts three to five days. “Ten to 15 percent of kids develop seizures that are purely associated with the fever,” says Avril Beckford, a paediatrician in Atlanta. While these seizures aren’t dangerous, she recommends bringing down the temperature with children’s acetaminophen or ibuprofen to make kids comfortable.

Three to five days after the fever comes a rash—small, rose-coloured spots on the trunk and limbs—that generally isn’t itchy and lasts from a few hours to a few days. “Once it resolves, the child starts feeling much better,” says Beckford. The virus is most common among children under age two, and kids are contagious from a day or two before the fever starts until the rash appears. Generally no treatment is needed.

You know you have it when:
You have the same symptoms, though they’ll probably be milder than your child’s. If you had roseola as a child, you can’t get it again. Like your kid, you should feel better in about a week. In the meantime, take it easy.

Coxsackievirus/Enterovirus—a.k.a., Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease
This illness causes sores in the mouth and on the hands and feet. It peaks in spring and spreads through droplets, direct contact and any bodily fluids.

You know your kid has it when:
She has sores inside her mouth, a fever and a bit of fussiness. It’s likely she won’t want to eat or drink because of the pain. She may also develop a blister-like rash on her hands and feet. The illness will run its course in about a week and doesn’t require special treatment. Hand, foot and mouth disease is most common in kids under five. Once infected, kids can spread the virus for up to six weeks through their stool, making diaper changes and potty time an exercise in haz-mat control.

You know you have it when:
You’re suffering from those same symptoms—though you’re likely less fussy. “You can get hand, foot and mouth disease even if you’ve had it before, because it’s caused by a group of viruses,” says Seema Marwaha, an internal medicine physician at Trillium Health Partners Institute for Better Health in Toronto. She explains that although you may be immune to a specific subtype of the virus, you can still fall prey to several others. Give it a week and you should feel better.

Mononucleosis—a.k.a., Mono
Known as “the kissing disease,” mono plagues teens with pain and fatigue, but much of the population has been infected with mono at some point and not known it, because it can be asymptomatic. You can contract mono through direct contact or droplets.

You know your kid has it when:
He’s suffering from a fever that lasts more than a few days, a sore throat, tender lymph nodes and fatigue. Then again, there may not be any signs at all. “Only about a quarter to a third of people with mono actually manifest the symptoms,” says Peter Katona, a clinical professor of medicine specializing in infectious diseases at the David Geffen School of Medicine at University of California, Los Angeles. The illness peaks from ages 15 to 24, and these teens and young adults tend to have more severe cases than younger kids. While the fever and sore throat can last a few weeks, the fatigue may stick around for months. No one knows how long people with mono are contagious, but some experts say it can last for 18 months. The treatment? Rest and lots of fluids.

You know you have it when:
Your main symptoms are lethargy, body aches, a fever and a general unwell feeling. Of course, these signs can point to a lot of different medical issues, but a blood test will confirm you have the virus. As with teens and young adults, the fatigue can lay you low for months. “Some data suggests mono may be occurring later in life now and can be more severe,” says Sarah Khan, associate medical director for infection prevention control at Hamilton Health Sciences in Hamilton, Ont. Luckily, if you’ve already had one strain of mono, you’re immune, but you can still have the bug without symptoms and pass it on to others or catch a different strain.

There are two viruses that cause mono: Epstein-Barr virus and cytomegalovirus (CMV). Women who contract mono from CMV during pregnancy may pass it on to their babies. “When a baby gets CMV in utero, it can cause long-term issues like hearing loss,” says Khan. If you are exposed to CMV during pregnancy, your baby’s urine will be tested after birth for the virus. “The baby can be treated for CMV with an antiviral medication,” says Khan.

Varicella—a.k.a., Chicken Pox
Chicken pox
is known for its itchy, blistering rash. It’s contracted by breathing in airborne particles, or by touching droplets or breathing in particles from broken blisters.

You know your kid has it when:
She’s tired, has a fever and headache, and is turning down her favourite snacks—and, of course, she’s covered with itchy red bumps, which turn into fluid-filled blisters that break and scab over. The whole process usually lasts five to 10 days. The infectious period begins 48 hours prior to the telltale rash and ends 24 hours after the last lesion has crusted over. Kids are usually safe to go back to school about a week after the rash emerges, even though the spots may still be visible.

Chicken pox is most common in kids under 10, but luckily, it’s avoidable: There’s a vaccine experts recommend all kids get at 12 to 15 months, with a second dose at four to six years.

You know you have it when:
You have the same symptoms as your child. But, in your case, the illness can lead to complications like pneumonia, skin infections and meningitis. If you had chicken pox as a child or have been vaccinated, you’re immune—but if not, you’re likely to catch it. “Chicken pox is one of the most contagious illnesses,” says Beckford, explaining that it can be transmitted through the air when the virus is aerosolized through coughing, or through fluids from the blisters. “There’s an outstanding chance that you’re going to get infected,” she says. If you’ve had chicken pox in the past, the virus can remain in your nerve cells and manifest as shingles, which is a band of painful blisters that appears on one side of the body, usually after age 50. Most people who have had the chicken pox vaccines are protected, but in rare cases, you can get shingles even if you’ve been vaccinated. You can talk to your doctor about getting a shingles vaccine later in life.

Because chicken pox can cause birth defects or miscarriage if you get it during pregnancy, women who haven’t had it should be vaccinated before conceiving. If you’re already pregnant and aren’t sure if you’re immune, your physician can test your immunity and give you an antibody if you’re not immune and have been exposed to the virus.

Pertussis—a.k.a., Whooping Cough
Whooping cough is a year-round problem, but it peaks in late summer and early fall. The disease spreads via contact and droplets.

You know your kid has it when:
He starts off with a week or so of flu-like symptoms, like a low-grade fever and a runny nose, and then develops a cough characterized by a whooping sound as he breathes in. Pertussis has been dubbed the “90-day cough” because, from the first symptoms to the final cough, it can last three months. “The highest rates of pertussis are in infants under five years and then in 10- to 14-year-olds,” says Khan. “But we are seeing a rise in all groups—it’s tripled in the past decade, perhaps because people aren’t getting vaccinated as much.”

Antibiotics can help reduce the severity of the illness and prevent it from spreading to others. Pertussis is no longer contagious after five days of antibiotics or after 21 days if you let the illness run its course. A vaccine is available, and experts recommend kids get immunized at as young as six weeks.

You know you have it when:
You have the same symptoms as your child, except you will just have a chronic persistent cough, minus the whooping sound, says Katona. Unfortunately, the “90-day cough” moniker applies to adults as well.

Khan recommends all adults get a dose of the pertussis vaccine to boost their childhood vaccination and then repeat the booster every 10 to 15 years. “If a pregnant woman past 26 weeks hasn’t received it in her adult life, most doctors will give it at this point,” she says. Your baby isn’t at risk if you get the illness during pregnancy, but once born, babies are especially vulnerable to complications from whooping cough. Getting the vaccine while pregnant means you’ll pass on antibodies in utero so your little one will be protected early in life.

Stop the Spread
Here’s how to keep your kid’s illness from infecting the rest of the family.

Of course, you must wash, wash, wash your hands. “If your child has a cold and cough, pay particular attention to washing your hands when you come into contact with mucus and secretions from the eyes and nose,” says Harley Eisman, medical director of Pediatric Emergency Services at the Montreal Children’s Hospital. “If the child is suffering from a gastrointestinal illness, your hands need to be washed after coming in contact with vomit or stool, and after changing a diaper.” Also wash up before preparing food or caring for other children in the house.

Good old soap and water is still the best choice. “The technique of handwashing is more important than the soap you use,” says Eisman. Be sure to scrub for 20 seconds, and don’t miss the spots between your fingers, under your fingernails and under rings. If you don’t have access to soap and water, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol is an effective alternative. Parents often stress over disinfecting the entire house in the face of an illness, but “that’s not necessary and probably not practical, either,” says Eisman. “Emphasis should be placed on surfaces that are frequently touched—for example, remote controls, counter table edges, doorknobs, railings, toys, feeding chairs and strollers—and rooms that have surfaces that are frequently touched, such as the bathroom and sick child’s bedroom.” A disinfecting spray or wipe will do the trick or “a quarter of a cup of bleach in a gallon of water is an appropriate substitute,” Eisman says. But he warns against sponges, which trap and breed bacteria due to their porous texture. Disposable wipes or washable cloths are best. Finally, wash the sick child’s bedding, clothes and towels—even stuffed animals if possible—in warm water.

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