by Ivy Bagley MSN, FNP-C, IBCLC
Parents often notice a significant increase in child sickness when their children return to school in the fall. Although most illnesses, such as the common cold, can be treated with home care, there are a times when it is important to contact your provider. As a general rule, if you are concerned about your child’s health, call and talk with their health care provider. Most offices offer a triage service—even after-hours—through which parents can speak with a trained healthcare provider for guidance.
The best way to “treat” common illnesses is actually through prevention. Talk with your child about hand washing. We should all wash our hands more often, as hand washing is the single most important act for preventing the spread of germs and disease.
Teach children to wash their hands before eating (including snacks), after playing outdoors, after using the restroom, or after sneezing or coughing. Hand washing should last approximately 15 to 20 seconds—time by singing a song such as “Wash, Wash, Wash Your Hands” (to the tune of Row your boat) or “Happy Birthday” (singing the lyrics twice)—and make sure to use soap.
Hand sanitizers should be utilized if soap and water are not available. If hands are visibly dirty, rinse prior to starting the washing process. Teach children to sneeze and cough in their elbow, not their hands, and to use tissues to wipe or blow their noses.
Another important prevention method is through the use of vaccines. Shortly after returning to school each year is the best time for children to receive an influenza or “flu” vaccine. The flu virus can easily spread from an infected individual coughing and sneezing. It also spreads from when children touch a contaminated surface and then placing their fingers in the eyes, nose, or mouth.
Those most susceptible to experiencing complications from the flu are children, the elderly, and pregnant women. Those with underlying chronic medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes, immune disorders, and heart disease are also at higher risk of developing serious complications. Although many consider the flu to be a minor illness, it is important not to dismiss the potential impact the flu can create. Complications can include pneumonia, hospitalization, and in some cases, death.
Children under six months of age are not able to be vaccinated against the flu, therefore, the best way to prevent illness among this age group is to vaccinate parents, caregivers, and siblings. Hospitalization and complications from the flu are a high risk for children six months to five years of age, so it is important to administer the flu vaccine annually for all children and adults.
Typical symptoms of the flu include a sudden fever (usually above 101oF), chills, body aches, headaches, being more tired than normal, sore throat, a dry hacking cough, and a stuffy nose. Most children fully recover from the flu in one to two weeks. Children should not return to daycare or school until they are fever free and, ideally, when their cough has improved. Antiviral medication is available and should be discussed with your primary care provider. It is most beneficial when started within 24-48 hours of showing symptoms, though for some children with chronic medical conditions or flu complications, there may be some benefit to utilize antivirals after forty-eight hours.
Although also the result of a viral infection, the “common cold” is different than the flu, and the symptoms are also different. Typically, the common cold produces a low grade fever, runny nose, and slight cough. Children with a cold may also experience a sore throat and clear nasal discharge that changes to yellow or gray.
Healthy children usually experience approximately six colds per year. It is important for parents to realize that 5-10% of children with a cold will develop other complications. Given the number of colds per year, most children recover easily with only symptom management. Symptoms from the common cold are the number one reason for emergency visits and office visits each year. If your child has ear pain, ongoing sinus pain/pressure, purulent drainage from the eyes, any trouble breathing, fever that goes away for 24 hours and then returns, a cough lasting for more than 3-4 weeks, and purulent nasal discharge that lasts for over 2 weeks, you should contact your child’s healthcare provider. Children who are fever free 24 hours without fever reducer are typically considered well enough to return to daycare or school.
Ultimately, we cannot prevent our children from contracting all illnesses, but by using a few preventative measures, we can help keep our children healthier and happier!
Ivy Bagley has a Masters of Science in Nursing and is a Certified Family Nurse Practitioner and International Board Certified Lactation Consultant at Children’s Health Services in Greenville.