The kids have been back at school for a while, Halloween is out of the way so, what’s next? Seasonal illness of course! (You thought we’d say Christmas, didn’t you?) By now many children will have had their first cold of the season. In fact, getting ‘a cold’ is commonplace event for most kids who will, in fact, average six to eight per year.
Today’s common childhood illnesses are more benign that those faced by their parents or grandparents. Past generations were facing not just the common cold but also diseases that have mostly disappeared, among them measles, mumps and chicken pox, all of which could have serious consequences. Modern vaccinations mean that these diseases are far less prevalent.
Many of the seasonal illnesses we face start out with sniffles, a cough and maybe a fever. Heading the list is the common cold, so-called because it is just that, common. This illness is caused by a number of different viruses, but most often by the rhinovirus. A cold usually begins with a sore throat, which often goes away after a day or two. Nasal symptoms, runny nose and congestion follow, along with a cough. Younger children may also experience low-grade fever.
The spread of the virus peaks on the third day. It makes sense, therefore, to stay out of school (or work) at least until the fourth day to avoid sharing the cold. Colds are spread through the air by droplets expelled in coughing or sneezing, and by touch. By now we have all learned to cough into our elbow, but make sure your child knows this, too. Regular hand washing is an important practice to prevent spreading the virus, and to avoid picking it up.
Treating a cold is aimed entirely at the symptoms because antibiotics are of no use against a virus-caused illness. Ever. The cold will go away on its own after about a week. In the meantime, the best plan is to treat its effects. Over-the-counter cold medications can relieve symptoms including sore throat, runny nose, congestion, and cough while warm fluids like soup and herbal teas can comfort and rehydrate.
Less common but even more contagious is ‘pink eye’ or conjunctivitis. It is an inflammation of the conjunctiva, the mucous membrane that covers the front of the eyeball and lines the inside of the eyelids. Pink eye can be caused by either a bacteria or a virus — there are two different types of the illness. In either case, your child will wake up with a crusty, sticky eye that is ‘glued shut’ and when it is finally opened, the eye is red and watering.
The most common form is viral conjunctivitis, caused by the same viruses that cause the common cold. There will be a watery discharge and some stringy mucus along with redness and the eye could feel gritty and burning. This infection is self-limited which means it will go away on its own.
Bacterial conjunctivitis will show most of the same symptoms but with a difference in the discharge. Instead of watery, it will be white, yellow or green and probably reappear after wiping. Treatment for this form of pink eye is with antibiotic eye ointment.
This time of year is also when we start getting vaccinated for influenza. While ‘the flu’ exhibits many of the symptoms of a cold, they will usually be more severe and last longer. We will talk more about the flu in an upcoming article.
Written by Dr. Paul Martiquet, Medical Health Officer for the Sunshine Coast and Powell River.