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5 childhood illnesses: A parent's guide

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Older boy helping younger blow his nose


Parents of small children are always facing new challenges and knowing what to do when illness strikes is an important part of raising your child.

Whether it’s ear infections, coughs, colds, stomach bugs or something more serious, it’s helpful to know the signs and symptoms and when to seek medical attention.

Assistant Medical Director at House Call Doctor Dr Ryan Harvey (MBBS MHEcon) says knowing when to seek medical help is important.

“As there are many illnesses a child can catch, it’s important for parents to be aware of many factors of an illness including signs, treatment and in particular, when to seek medical attention,” Dr Harvey says.

“Children have a weaker immune system, so they’re susceptible to catching many types of illnesses, some of the more common ones are listed below.”

1. Chickenpox (varicella)

Signs and symptoms: The common symptoms of chickenpox include a slight fever, cold-like symptoms, rash, blister crops and a rash which is more noticeable on the torso than the limbs.

Treatments: There is no specific treatment for chickenpox, though paracetamol can relieve a fever and a calamine lotion or cooling gel can ease any itching.

Expected duration: The incubation period for chicken pox is 10-21 days. Children with chickenpox are infectious up to 2 days before any red spots appear and until 5 days after all scabs/crusts are dry.

What you should know: Importantly, parents should be aware chickenpox can be spread by an infected person when they talk, breath, cough or sneeze small particles into the air. It’s recommended to consult with a doctor if your child has a high fever, shortness of breath or chest pain in addition to chickenpox. If your child is less than a month old and exposed to chickenpox, seek medical attention immediately. 

2. Hand, foot and mouth disease

Signs and symptoms: If your child has hand, food and mouth disease, you will notice painful sores in their mouth and throat, often accompanied by red blisters on their hands and soles of their feet. Along with this, they will have a persistent fever, abnormal movements, rapid breathing, excessive tiredness, irritability and walking difficulties.

Treatments: You can treat hand, foot and mouth disease with ibuprofen and ease a sore throat with cold fluids and ice pops, though it is best to avoid acidic drinks as they may cause pain. Paracetamol can relieve symptoms of fever and discomfort.

      Expected duration: Any sores will typically last between seven and ten days.

What you should know:  Children with hand, foot and mouth should stay away from school and childcare until blisters have dried up, rash has gone, and fever is settled. A doctor can diagnose hand, foot and mouth disease, but often no treatment is needed. All sores need to dry out naturally as the fluid within the blisters is contagious.

3. Whooping Cough (pertussis)

Signs and symptoms: Initial signs of whooping cough are a persistent cough which will progress to intense coughing bouts. In small children, these coughing bouts can be followed by a distinctive ‘whooping’ sound when the child breathes – this gives the illness its name. Along with this, other symptoms can also include a runny nose, raised temperature, vomiting and coughing.

Treatments: To prevent whooping cough, a doctor will recommend vaccinations for pregnant women at 28 weeks and vaccinations for fathers, grandparents and other visitors. In terms of treatment, whooping cough symptoms can be reduced through antibiotics.

Expected duration: Whooping cough has an incubation period of between 7 to 20 days, with the infectious period lasting from the initial signs of the illness to three weeks after the coughing has started.

What you should know:  If you suspect your child has whooping cough, it’s best to contact your doctor as soon as possible and inform them of any symptoms you have noticed. As well as this, make sure to inform your usual medical centre you could be seeking treatment for whooping cough as it’s incredibly contagious.

4. School sores (impetigo)

Signs and symptoms: If you suspect your child has school sores, you will notice they have red or itchy skin, blister formations, blisters that weep a yellow sticky fluid and a scab which dries and falls off.

Treatments: School sores can be treated by antibiotic creams and ointments which need to be applied regularly until the sores have healed completely.

Expected duration: The incubation period for school sores is one to three days with most cases being no longer infectious after 24 hours of antibiotic treatment.

What you should know: School sores are highly contagious and children with them need to be kept away from school and childcare. They are also a very common childhood illness and transmission usually occurs through direct contact with patients. If your child has the symptoms, it is recommended to consult with a doctor immediately.

5. Croup

Signs and symptoms: Croup is an incredibly common viral infection which causes swelling of the windpipe, swelling of the airways to the lungs and the vocal cords. Croup has a distinctive barking cough and can make a harsh sound, called stridor, when the affected person breathes in.

Treatments: Croup can be treated at home and is usually diagnosed by a doctor. You should see your doctor if your child is having breathing difficulties, your child has noisy breathing even while resting, their breastbone sucks in when they breathe in or they’re having difficulty swallowing.

Expected duration: Croup can last between three and seven days, but also up to two weeks.

What you should know: It’s very important to seek immediate medical attention if your child’s lips go blue.

When to seek urgent medical attention for your child?

As there are many illnesses which can affect your child, make sure to seek urgent medical attention if your child is showing any of the below sign:

  • Unresponsive
  • Their temperature is above 38 degrees
  • They are continuously vomiting
  • They have a red or purple rash that doesn’t go away when pressed
  • They are having breathing difficulties
  • They are not drinking fluids or passing urine
  • Having a seizure
  • Having an allergic reaction
  • High-pitched and continuously crying
  • Pale or blue.