Sniffles, sneezes and runny noses are a fact of life for families with young children, especially during the colder months.
But while many winter bugs can be cured with rest and cuddles, others are more difficult to deal with, especially if secondary infections or other complications arise. Knowing when to call the doctor is important, but prevention and survival strategies are equally crucial.
What’s to blame?
When it comes to winter illnesses, viruses are the main culprit.
To overcome a virus your little one needs to have lots of rest, fluids and TLC, but steer clear of antibiotics as these only work against bacteria, and not viruses.
You can give young children infant paracetamol or ibuprofen to relieve symptoms and fever, but if you think the illness is more serious or your child is not recovering quickly, always visit your GP.
Paediatrician and M&B expert Dr Scott Dunlop says children are particularly susceptible to viruses that cause coughs and colds because their immune systems are still developing.
“Children can be unlucky and have a run of viral illnesses,” Scott says.
“This is rarely due to immunodeficiency, but rather immune immaturity, which naturally improves with age and the development of antibodies to each viral illness as it arises.” Scott also says while parents often wonder whether they can boost their child’s immunity with vitamin and mineral supplements, there is no evidence to confirm this.
"Children are particularly susceptible to viruses that cause coughs and colds because their immune systems are still developing."
Limit the spread
Getting a cough, cold or sore throat happens more often in winter because of the increased number of respiratory viruses prevalent at that time of the year.
The colder outdoor temperature is not a significant factor in itself. The increased amount of time people spend in enclosed spaces can promote the spread of viruses from one person to another.
“Viruses are generally caught by inhaling droplets from another person, or by coming into contact with a cold virus through touching hands or surfaces infected with a virus,” says Scott.
To help prevent the spread of infections, teach your child to cough into his sleeve or a tissue, rather than into his hand, and to blow his nose properly.
Also, encourage your child to wash his hands frequently, especially before eating.
“There has been a rapid rise in the use of alcohol-based gels to wash hands, but a good-quality antibacterial handwash for your bathroom can be just as effective,” says Scott.
You can prepare yourself for dealing with typical childhood winter illnesses by learning how to recognise their symptoms and ways to alleviate them.
Colds and coughs
If your baby looks miserable or sounds ‘wet’ he most likely has a cold. Mucus running down the back of his throat makes him cough, and a blocked nose will make his breathing sound noisy.
After the age of one month, you can give him a dose of infant paracetamol to help alleviate the discomfort if he has trouble breathing, eating or sleeping, but always check with your GP before giving him any other medications.
“There is no evidence to confirm that cough suppressants are useful at any age, so avoid giving these to your child,” Scott says.
Babies take longer than adults to clear away mucus, so noisy breathing and a blocked nose can persist for a long time, often six to eight weeks after the cold has gone. Coughs can also persist for this length of time, and are one of the most common reasons parents visit their GP or paediatrician, adds Scott.
“Always see your doctor if your baby loses interest in food, develops a persistent fever (see below), becomes limp, has difficulty breathing or develops blue lips,” he says.
If your baby’s coughing is associated with wheezing, a high temperature, breathlessness or sleeplessness, see your GP. If your GP is unavailable and you’re concerned about your baby’s breathing in any way, then head to your local hospital’s emergency department.
More common between the ages of six months and six years, croup is caused by a viral infection in the upper respiratory tract.
Since it causes a narrowing of the windpipe and inflammation of the voicebox (larynx), your baby’s cough will sound like a seal bark accompanied by a crowing noise as he breathes in.
If he has difficulty breathing, take him to your GP or your local hospital’s emergency department.
A high temperature is a sign the immune system is working hard to tackle an infection, and babies and toddlers are more prone to fevers than older children and adults.
A fever also acts as a warning, indicating your child may have a cold, gastroenteritis or an infectious disease, though he won’t always show feverish symptoms with these illnesses.
Your baby has a fever when his temperature reads above 37.3°C (99.1°F) on a thermometer placed under his arm, or above 37.8°C (100.0 °F) on an infra-red ear thermometer.
A basic test is to place the back of your hand on your baby’s tummy to feel if he is warm, hot or burning. Teething can often make babies feel warm, but doesn’t necessarily cause a fever.
To treat a fever, undress bub down to his singlet and nappy, and keep him under a light sheet in a cool room. If he’s still hot after 30 minutes, sponge him down with tepid water, then pat him dry.
Don’t let him shiver, as this will raise his body temperature. If you feel uneasy about the cause of the fever, or your baby is less than three months old, take him to a doctor.
Not all fevers are dangerous and, in many cases, your child won’t feel unwell when he has a raised temperature.
You can give him infant paracetamol or ibuprofen if his temperature is heading towards 39°C (102.2°F), but make sure you have a reliable, easy-to-use thermometer on hand to keep track of the fever. Not all fevers need to be treated, either, says Scott.
“There is actually evidence to suggest that treating fever may prolong the length of the illness,” he says.
The middle ear is the usual site of ear problems in older babies and toddlers, as their Eustachian tube, which connects the middle ear to the throat, is narrow and gets blocked easily.
Viral infections can cause the throat’s lining to swell, blocking the Eustachian tube and preventing drainage from the middle ear.
This allows a secondary infection to grow behind the eardrum. Infected mucus can then lead to a painful acute ear infection, which may change your baby’s behaviour. He may have screaming attacks, be unsettled or develop a sleep problem.
If these occur, visit your doctor to have his ears checked. “Most middle ear infections do not require treatment with antibiotics, but your doctor will guide you in this regard,” says Scott.
Runny or snotty nose
If it seems like your little one is constantly sniffling, he probably is.
Young children come down with approximately six to 12 colds every year. A blocked nose is one of the most visible signs, but babies and toddlers are unable to blow their own noses, which leads to a build-up of congestion.
This causes problems with sucking, swallowing and restful sleep.
A saline nasal spray or nasal aspirator can help remove excess mucus, and nozzles are available for different-sized noses.
Some parents like to use a vaporiser in their child’s room, but Scott says these are unlikely to have a significant impact on easing your child’s symptoms.
When to get help
Even if it seems like he has only a minor cold, it’s always important to monitor your little one while he’s sick to ensure he’s getting better, not worse. Make an appointment to see your GP if your child:
- develops a fever of over 40°C (104.0 °F) that persists, despite regular administration of paracetamol.
- shows unusual symptoms like a rash, or becomes uncommonly tired or listless.
- doesn’t seem to be recovering or appears to be getting worse.
- has a sore neck or light sensitivity.
You may have squeezed more fresh oranges than a juice factory and herded your little one to the bathroom to wash his hands more times than you can remember, but children catching the sniffles is inevitable during winter.
The following practical advice might help you get through this trying period.
- Offer your child small amounts of food but don’t expect a lot to be eaten, since appetites often lessen with illness. Also, encourage him to drink plenty of fluids, preferably plain water.
- Make sure to look after yourself, too. Eat well and get plenty of rest. If you’re run-down, you’re more likely to catch whatever your child has.
- Whenever possible, try to get to bed early because you never know what the night will bring – you may be up all night soothing a sick child.
- Accept that your plans for the day or week have changed and just go with the flow. People understand that children get sick, so don’t feel guilty about rescheduling appointments.
- Make the most of the enforced downtime. Snuggle up together with his favourite book or movie or, if your child shows enough interest, spend time doing an easy craft project together.
- Don’t get stressed about doing the housework – no-one will be visiting.
- If you instinctively feel something isn’t right with your child, don’t hesitate to get medical advice.
- When administering medication, read the instructions properly and make sure they’re age appropriate.