My six-year-old daughter, Scotia, has had her share of embarrassing health problems: scaly scalp, constipation, bad breath, to name a few. They’re not the kind of things I like to talk about with other parents at the playground.
“Parents are reluctant to discuss certain health concerns because they think it reflects poorly on their parenting skills or their child’s hygiene,” says Ian Landells, a paediatric dermatologist in St. John’s. “They feel guilty when, in fact, it usually has nothing to do with them.”
Lose the guilt by getting informed. Here’s how to face up (sometimes literally) to some of your child’s ickiest health issues without batting — or lowering — an eye.
1. Bad Breath
The first time I noticed my daughter’s breath was less than fresh, I wasn’t too concerned. But when I caught myself backing away during our up-close-and-snuggly moments, I knew we had a problem.
What to do: Poor dental hygiene is one of the main causes of bad breath in children, says Ian McConnachie, a paediatric dentist and president of the Ontario Dental Association. Make thorough after-meal brushing a habit (up until age seven, you should supervise) and remind your child to brush the surface of her tongue, an area where bacteria accumulates. Wherever the contact between the teeth is tight, flossing is a must. If your child is practising good dental hygiene and her smelly breath persists, see your paediatrician. Bad breath can also be a sign of acid reflux, enlarged tonsils or adenoids, ear infection or chronic sinus infection (which turned out to be my daughter’s diagnosis).
2. Scaly Scalp
When Toronto mom Jane Duke took her two-month-old son, Rhys, to a birthday party, she covered his head with a beanie. “He had the worst-ever case of cradle cap and I worried that people would think I wasn’t washing his hair properly.”
Infant seborrheic dermatitis, more commonly known as cradle cap, is thought to be caused by increased oil production from the maternal hormones that cross the placental barrier during pregnancy. This results in oily, yellow scales marring your sweet baby’s scalp. It may not look pretty, but cradle cap is rarely itchy or uncomfortable for baby and it usually clears up within the first year of life.
What to do: Gently massage mineral oil into your baby’s scalp and leave it for at least 30 minutes (or overnight). Wash his scalp afterwards with a small amount of anti-dandruff shampoo such as Selsun Blue, then use a fine-tooth comb to remove the scales “but only very gently. It could be uncomfortable for the baby,” says Landells. “It’s more important not to upset him than to remove the scales — they will fall off on their own.” If the scalp is very red and irritated, or if the rash spreads to your baby’s face, neck, armpits or diaper area, the doctor may prescribe a cortisone cream or lotion.
If your child is over 18 months and develops scaly scalp, consult his doctor, advises Landells. He may have a sensitivity to his shampoo, or have psoriasis or a fungal infection.
“My four-year-old son, Julien, had warts all over his hands and he was so self-conscious about it that he’d wear bandages on all of his fingers,” says Moncton, NB, mom Kim Milton.
What to do: Warts are one of the most common of childhood skin conditions. They usually appear on the hands and bottom of the feet (plantar warts) and are caused by the human papilloma virus, which thrives in moist environments. Warts will eventually disappear on their own within six months to two years without treatment, expelled by the body’s immune system. For that reason, Landells does not recommend treating them unless they start spreading or are causing your child discomfort or embarrassment.
Instead, encourage your child not to touch the warts, since picking, scratching or chewing on them can spread them to another part of the body, including the face or lips. Covering them with a piece of duct tape or a bandage is a good way to prevent that, says Landells. Over-the-counter treatments are sometimes effective, but make sure you file off the dead skin a couple of times a week with a pumice stone. If at-home treatments aren’t working, consult your doctor or dermatologist, who may recommend freezing, burning or lasering the wart off.
A related problem is mollusca, small white lumps that appear in the folds of the skin (elbow creases, armpits, groin, butt, behind the knees). Doctors will prescribe similar treatments but, like warts, they should eventually clear up on their own. See your doctor if there is no improvement.
Sandy Fields* recalls going “undercover” with a flashlight to check whether her four-year-old daughter had pinworms. “She was scratching her bum at bedtime, so I wanted to see if there was anything there. Really, the whole thing was just so yucky!”
Most parents shudder at the thought of pinworms, but they’re more a nuisance than a disease, says Jeremy Friedman, chief of paediatric medicine at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children and author of Caring for Kids: The Complete Canadian Guide to Children’s Health. “They’re common wherever kids are in close contact with each other — especially playing in the dirt.” The tiny, white, thread-like worms, which live in the intestine, can cause intense itchiness around the anus or vagina, particularly at night when they crawl out of the anus to lay their eggs on nearby skin.
What to do: You can go on a worm hunt, as Fields did. Another option is the tape test: Press a clear piece of tape on the skin around your child’s anus first thing in the morning, then have your doctor check it for eggs under a microscope. Most pinworm infections are mild and easily treated with two doses of medication taken two weeks apart. The doctor can also give you a special cream to stop the itching. To prevent reinfection, make sure your child washes his hands carefully, before eating and after playing outside or using the toilet. Keep his fingernails clean and trimmed and try to discourage him from nail-biting and scratching his bottom.
*Name changed by request.