Oh No, Not the Sniffles Again! A guide to Childhood Illness
It’s a fact that during the winter months viruses are usually more prevalent. When it’s cold and wet outside people naturally tend to spend more time together indoors where it is warm and dry. Viruses can spread more easily, particularly in the dryer air from our heating systems, and are therefore more common in the winter months. In our shorter winter period, here in Cyprus, it feels like our children are consistently ill, with one cold after another. Having spent the warmer months relatively illness free this sudden spree of sickness can often leave families exasperated, exhausted and frustrated. Let’s try and put this into perspective. It is perfectly normal for young children to get sick. Illness is an inevitable part of life and is especially common during the early years of childhood. On average, young children, including toddlers, can expect to experience between six to ten infections or illnesses each year, such as colds, flu, ear infections, and stomach viruses. This is due to their developing immune system and increased exposure to illness-causing agents in their environment. Although it is important to note that the number of infections can vary greatly based on the child's individual health, hygiene habits, and exposure to others who are sick. Not to mention the impact the pandemic and restricted socialization has had on our young children and their developing immune systems. But let’s not linger there…
While it can be frightening and disruptive for both children and their parents, experiencing illness during the early years can also have important longer-term benefits. Hear me out. Experiencing illness helps to strengthen a child's immune system. The immune system is like a muscle that needs to be worked out to become stronger. Children’s immune systems are constantly exposed to new viruses and bacteria as they explore and interact with the world around them. This helps their immune systems learn to recognise and fight off these foreign invaders, which helps to build immunity over time. When a child is exposed to a virus or bacterium, their body will respond by producing antibodies to fight it off. This process helps to build immunity, making it less likely that they will get sick from the same illness in the future. Mother nature (she knows what she’s doing!) has equipped children with a more robust and resilient immune system compared to adults meaning they are better able to fight off viruses and recover more quickly when they do get sick.
Unfortunately, our little ones have it worst. Toddlers are at a higher risk of getting sick frequently for several reasons. Firstly, the inquisitive toddler loves touching and exploring the world around them which inevitably means putting everything in their mouth, a normal sensorial and developmental stage, thus increasing their exposure to bacteria and viruses. Toddlers are also in their early social development, which involves getting up close and personal with each other which increases the chances of the spread of illness. Young children, particularly toddlers, may not have developed or have the capacity to understand good hygiene habits, such as regular handwashing practice, coughing and sneezing into their elbow, and not touching their face, which can increase the risk of spreading illness. It is important that parents and teachers alike routinely role model and encourage good hygiene habits to reduce the risk of children getting sick when they start school.
As a parent, it can be stressful to see your child struggling with illness. However, it is important to remember that childhood illnesses are a normal part of growing up. As much as we wish to prevent them getting sick all the time there are a few steps you can take to help avoid repeated illness in young children and the rest of the family:
1. Wash your hands: One of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of illness is to wash your hands frequently. Encourage your child to wash their hands with soap and water before eating, after using the bathroom, and after playing with toys.
2. Keep surfaces clean: Germs can easily spread on surfaces like countertops, doorknobs, and toys. To help prevent the spread of illness, make sure to regularly clean and disinfect these surfaces.
3. Get vaccinated: Vaccines help to protect against a variety of serious illnesses and are an important part of preventing the spread of illness. Make sure your child is up to date on their vaccinations.
4. Encourage healthy habits: Help your child develop healthy habits like eating a balanced diet, and staying active. These habits can help boost their immune system and reduce the risk of getting sick.
5. Ensuring your child gets adequate sleep. Sleep is important for the overall health and well-being of young children. Adequate sleep improves the body's ability to fight off infections by increasing the number of natural killer cells, which are white blood cells that help fight off viruses. During sleep, the body repairs and regenerates tissues, including the immune system. Lack of sleep can suppress the immune system, making the body more susceptible to illness and infections.
Dealing with illness in children can be difficult and overwhelming, but there are steps you can take to help your child recover and feel better. Here are some tips for coping when your child gets sick:
Follow your doctor's recommendations: It is important to follow your doctor's recommendations for treatment and care. This may include giving your child prescribed medications, following a specific diet, or keeping them home from school. Monitor their temperature regularly.
Encourage your child to rest: Keep them in a comfortable, quiet environment. Illness can be draining for children, so it is important to encourage your child to rest and get plenty of sleep. This will help their body recover and fight off the illness.
Keep your child hydrated: Dehydration can make symptoms of illness worse, so it is important to make sure your child is getting enough fluids. Encourage your child to drink water, electrolyte solutions, or clear broth to stay hydrated.
Offer them small, frequent meals. It is not uncommon for children to go off their food when they are ill. If your child won't eat, focus on fluids. Preventing dehydration and replacing lost fluids always takes priority over feeding solid foods. Their appetite will normally start to return once they start to feel better and become more active.
Keep your child comfortable: There are a variety of ways you can help your child feel more comfortable during their illness. This may include using over-the-counter medications to reduce fever and pain, using a humidifier to keep the air moist, and applying lotions or creams to help with itchy rashes.
Know when to keep your child home from school: It is important to keep your child home from school if they are experiencing symptoms of illness. This will help prevent the spread of illness to other children and give your child time to recover. As a rule, young children are best cared for at home when they are ill as they will be able to get the extra cuddles and attention they particularly need. Once your child is eating, drinking, sleeping, and playing normally they can be considered fit enough to return to school.
Understand the recovery process: The length of time it takes for a child to recover from an illness will depend on the specific illness and the severity of the symptoms. In general, most illnesses will resolve on their own within a week or two. However, more serious illnesses may take longer to recover from. It is important to follow your doctor's recommendations and to contact them if you have any concerns about your child's recovery.
Keep them entertained. By providing your child with a variety of activities to choose from, you can help to keep them entertained and engaged while they are home sick. Just be sure to consider your child's energy levels and comfort and adjust the activities accordingly. A few suggestions:
Reading books: Reading is a great way to pass the time and can be very soothing for a child who is feeling under the weather. Choose a selection of books that your child enjoys and set aside some quiet time for reading together.
Drawing or colouring: Art activities are a great way to keep a child's mind occupied and can be very calming. Provide your child with colouring books, crayons, or other art supplies and encourage them to create their own masterpieces.
Watching movies or TV shows: If your child is feeling up to it, you could let them watch a favourite movie or TV show as a special treat. Just make sure to choose age-appropriate content and limit the amount of time they spend in front of the screen.
Doing a puzzle: Puzzles are a great way to keep a child's mind occupied and can be very calming. Choose a puzzle that is appropriate for your child's ability level.
Listening to music: Music can be very soothing and may help to lift your child's spirits. Choose some of your child's favourite songs or create a playlist of calming music for them to listen to.
Despite the difficulties of experiencing illness children can also learn valuable lessons
about their own health and well-being; the importance of taking care of their bodies, good hygiene practices, eating nutritious food, and getting enough rest and exercise. They also learn about the importance of seeking medical attention when they are not feeling well. Experiencing illness can provide an opportunity for children to learn about empathy and compassion. Children may see their parents or other family members caring for them when they are sick, and this can help them to understand the importance of being kind and supportive to others who are not feeling well.
In conclusion, it is perfectly normal for children to get sick; younger children especially are at higher risk of getting sick due to a combination of factors, including an immature immune system, poor hygiene habits, and increased exposure to others. While illness can be difficult and disruptive, it is also a normal and important part of the early years of childhood. By experiencing illness, children build their immune systems, and have the opportunity to learn valuable lessons about health and well-being, develop empathy and compassion, and build resilience.
Important Note: Little Gems has an Illness Policy, which outlines all the recommended days absent and the criteria for returning to school for common childhood illnesses. It is important to keep your child home from school if they are experiencing symptoms of illness to help prevent the spread of infection to other children, and staff!
Listed below are some common childhood illnesses and tips for managing them:
The common cold: It’s not surprising that the common cold is one of the most common childhood illnesses. Symptoms include a runny nose, sneezing, and a cough. Colds are caused by viruses that spread easily in environments where people have close contact with one another. There is no cure for the common cold, but it is self-limiting and usually resolves on its own within a week or two. To help manage symptoms of fever, muscle aches, or headaches you can give your child over-the-counter cold medication, such as Calpol and Ibuprofen. Also encourage them to drink fluids and consider using a humidifier to keep the air moist.
The flu: The flu is a viral infection that affects the respiratory system and can be more serious than the common cold. Symptoms include fever, body aches, sore throat, chills, fatigue and a cough. If your child does get the flu, it is important to keep them well-hydrated and to give them over-the-counter fever reducers to help manage the symptoms. It is important to consider getting your child vaccinated against the flu. Getting the flu shot doesn’t guarantee you won’t get sick, but it can lower your risk for the most common strains. And it may reduce the severity and duration of flu symptoms if you do get sick.
Stomach viruses: Stomach viruses, also known as gastroenteritis, are caused by a viral infection that affects the digestive system. Symptoms include diarrhoea, vomiting and abdominal pain. To help manage these symptoms, it is important to give your child plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. You can also give them over-the-counter medications to help reduce the severity of the symptoms.
Ear infections: Ear infections are caused by a build-up of fluid in the middle ear and can be painful for your child. Symptoms include ear pain, fever and difficulty sleeping, tugging on the ear. Antibiotics are usually prescribed to treat ear infections, but you can also try giving your child over-the-counter pain medication and using a warm washcloth to help relieve the pain.
Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) is a common childhood illness that affects the respiratory system. In most children and adults, it causes mild cold-like symptoms including fever, coughing, runny nose and sneezing. However, in young infants and older adults, it can be more serious. It can cause inflammation in the airways and result in pneumonia.
Hand Foot and Mouth Disease (HMFD) is very contagious but not usually very serious. It is most common in infants and children younger than five years old. However, older kids and adults can get it. Symptoms include skin rash, fever, mouth sores and flu-like symptoms.
Conjunctivitis is known by the more common (and descriptive) name “pink eye”. The tell-tale signs of pink eye include redness, discharge, itchiness and swelling in one or both eyes. There are multiple causes, but the contagious type of conjunctivitis is caused by a bacteria or virus that gets into the eye. A paediatrician may treat the pink eye with antibiotic ointment or eye drops.
During the winter months, particularly January and February, the increase of children and families reporting into nursery unwell is much higher than normal. Jane Mylonas is a registered nurse from the UK, in addition to, Little Gems school nurse and Operations Coordinator. She has been with Little Gems in Nicosia since we opened. If you have any concerns about children’s illnesses, don’t hesitate contacting us: firstname.lastname@example.org