Survive the season

Runny noses, constant coughs, sore eyes and miserable tummies: A quick guide to coping with the season's main offenders

The common cold

This virus lingers in tiny droplets in the air and on surfaces, and enters your body through your eyes, mouth, nose and hands. Although more than 200 viruses can cause a cold, the rhinovirus is the most common and contagious, infecting young children about four times a year.

Symptoms Stuffy or runny nose, poor appetite, headache, cough, sneezing and mild tiredness. Children may complain of sore eyes, sore throat, hoarseness or swollen neck glands.

Concern Wheezing, rapid or laboured breathing, earache, increasing drowsiness or a new fever occurring days after the cold first appeared are signs the virus is turning into something else.

Treatment The best remedy is time. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen may relieve pain, aches or fever. Avoid acetylsalicylic acid or cold medicines containing it.

Self-care Encourage your child to drink lots of fluids (water, juice, soup) and rest. Keep his bedroom warm, but don’t overheat. If the air is dry, try a cool-mist humidifier or vaporizer. Encourage him to gargle with warm salt water several times a day, or drink warm water with lemon and honey to soothe his sore throat. Saline nasal drops help relieve stuffy noses.

Gastroenteritis

You might call it the “stomach flu,” but this is an infection of the bowel, including the small and large intestines, and occurs after contact with an infected person or after consuming contaminated food or water.

Symptoms Nausea, vomiting (or both), abdominal cramps and pain, occasional muscle aches or headache, low-grade fever and non-bloody diarrhea (blood suggests a bacterial illness).

Concern Dehydration through diarrhea and vomiting. Watch for tearless crying, dry lips, decreased urination, lethargy and cold hands and feet.

Treatment While you should keep your child hydrated by giving her plenty to drink, try to opt for oral rehydration solutions such as Pedialyte, Gastrolyte or Lytren, rather than just water or juice.

Self-care Let your infant’s stomach settle for 15 to 20 minutes after vomiting or diarrhea, then offer small amounts of liquids. Kids up to age five may tolerate bland foods. Most kids can manage the BRAT diet (banana, rice, applesauce, toast). Let your child’s appetite dictate how much solid food she eats.
Ear infection

Middle ear infections (otitis media) occur when a virus or bacteria inflames the area, usually following a cold.

Symptoms Pulling on the ear, hearing loss, dizziness or loss of balance, difficulty sleeping, fever, irritability and loss of appetite.

Concern If your child is prone to ear infections, your doctor may discuss preventive antibiotics or drainage tubes in the eardrum.

Treatment According to the Mayo Clinic, for most otherwise healthy children over six months of age, watchful waiting is the best choice, as up to 80 percent of ear infections clear up without antibiotics. To ease your child’s discomfort, the doctor may recommend ibuprofen or acetaminophen, and reassess in two or three days. If your child has recurrent ear infections or is younger than six months, antibiotics are usually recommended.

Self-care Bottle-fed babies are more prone to ear infections than breastfed babies because breastmilk passes along immunity from the mother. If you’re bottle-feeding, be sure to hold your baby upright.

Pink eye

Also known as conjunctivitis, this inflammation of the thin, transparent membrane covering the eyeball is caused by infections, allergies, chemicals or irritants. Viral and bacterial forms of conjunctivitis can be spread, usually through contact with an infected child.

Symptoms Itchy, red, sore eyes with a discharge that can be watery or thick and pus-like. Kids often wake up with eyelids stuck together.

Concern Both viral and bacterial pink eye are common among children and are very contagious for seven to 14 days after symptoms first appear.

Treatment Bacterial infections are treated with antibiotic eye drops or ointments, while viral causes get better on their own after one to two weeks.

Self-care Soothe the eyes by applying warm-water compresses.
Croup

This noisy respiratory condition is caused by inflammation in your child’s windpipe or trachea. Blame it on the parainfluenza virus, which spreads from contact with infected saliva or nasal mucus.

Symptoms A sharp, dry, brassy-sounding cough (like a seal’s bark) that begins suddenly at night. Gasping noises while inhaling, a sign of more severe croup, occur when the windpipe has become swollen and narrow.

Concern Watch for fever in a baby younger than six months old, or one that lasts for more than 72 hours in an older child. Other red flags include rapid or difficult breathing, severely sore throat, increased amounts of drooling or refusing to swallow. Take your child to the ER at the onset of indrawing (pulling in at neck, shoulders or ribs while breathing).

Treatment Generally, children will get better by themselves.

Self-care Taking your child into cold outside air has proven helpful.

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)

More than 80 percent of kids will get RSV — one of several viruses that cause bronchiolitis — by the time they’re two. RSV is transmitted through the air or by unwashed hands carrying nasal secretions.

Symptoms Similar to the common cold. A runny nose, cough and low-grade fever will appear about two to eight days after exposure. As the infection spreads to the lower respiratory tract and lungs, breathing rate increases. Flaring nostrils, grunting noise with every breath, restlessness, lethargy, low-grade fever and decreased feeding are warning signs.

Concern If you notice your child is having difficulty breathing, see your doctor. Watch out for dehydration and lethargy.

Treatment Antibiotics do not help treat RSV. Most children get better without any special treatment within one to two weeks (as with a bad cold).

Self-care Use a cool-mist vaporizer to keep the air moist. A nasal aspirator can help clear little noses.
Best defence

While you can’t prevent every viral invader from getting an infectious toehold in your home, you can lessen the likelihood with some simple, tried-and-true tricks.

• Wash your child’s hands with warm water and soap, and rub for at least 20 seconds beneath fingernails and in the creases of hands — about as long as it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice.
• Teach your child to wash her hands after wiping her nose or using the toilet, and before handling food.
• Use hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol when soap and water are not available.
• Have separate personal items around your home. Avoid sharing cutlery, glasses and plates.
• Change sheets and towels weekly.
• Keep your child’s immunizations up to date.

Is it asthma?

If your child is getting more than his share of respiratory infections, should you suspect asthma? Many factors can make children more likely to develop asthma, including common respiratory viruses, a tendency toward allergies (eczema and hay fever), a family history and exposure to environmental agents such as cigarette smoke.

About half of all children will wheeze — the sound created when breathing is restricted — at least once before age six. For most, that will be their only brush with asthma, but for about 10 percent of children, it’s just the beginning. Here’s what’s going on:

What is it? During an asthma episode, the airways become constricted and inflamed. This leads to rapid breathing, shortness of breath and wheezing. Exercise and the chilly winter air can worsen your child’s symptoms.

How is it treated? Bronchodilators (like salbutamol) and anti-inflammatory medications (steroids taken by pill, liquid or inhaled) open the airways by relaxing the tight muscles. Leukotriene antagonists do not contain steroids and can be taken in pill form.

What can I do?
• Keep your child away from cigarette smoke.
• Keep dust at bay by washing bedding weekly.
• If you have the choice, choose hardwood floors over carpets.
• Bid Fido and Fluffy farewell if your child has animal allergies.
• Keep your home’s humidity at 40 to 45 percent to help prevent mould from developing.
• Stay close to home during pollen season.
 

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