Most every parent can relate to being worried or feeling frantic when trying to understand the best way to care for a child when they’re not feeling well. From a simple runny nose to more troubling symptoms, there’s a wide spectrum of common childhood illnesses that primary caregivers must contend with. It’s natural to grab a phone or computer and quickly search on the Internet for information regarding the symptoms in a sick child. But, with billions of web pages available and most including unconfirmed sources, your best advice will come from your child’s pediatrician.
In this post, we’ll outline the general differences between viral and bacterial infections, explore at a high level respiratory illnesses, digestive system concerns, and immune system malfunctions. Mostly, we want parents to be able to recognize what’s a common illness and what may need more medical attention. Metro Pediatrics is the first place you can turn with any questions about your child’s physical and emotional health. We encourage you to recognize early symptoms and give us a call if you’ve got concerns, which can play a pivotal role in your child’s well-being.
What’s the Difference Between Viral and Bacterial Illnesses
To get a good handle on a child’s illness, it’s important to understand the difference between viral and bacterial infections. Let’s break it down:
Viruses are microscopic infectious agents that invade and multiply inside the cells of living organisms. When children catch a viral infection, it’s usually due to coming in close contact with someone who’s already infected or by touching contaminated surfaces.
Symptoms of viral infections can vary, but often include a runny nose, sore throat, and sometimes a high fever. For instance, the common cold is a type of viral infection, as is the flu. But not all viral infections present symptoms in the same way. While some might display more mild, cold-like symptoms, other viral illnesses are accompanied by high fever, diarrhea, or vomiting. It’s essential to monitor your child’s symptoms as their illness progresses and consult their pediatrician when things seem to get worse or they’re not getting better.
Unlike viruses, bacteria are single-celled microorganisms and they exist virtually everywhere. Your body is one big microbiome for countless colonies of varied and beneficial bacteria aiding in functional processes like digestion. However, harmful bacteria can also find their way into unwanted areas of the body and lead to infections.
One of the most familiar bacterial infections in children is strep throat, which can be accompanied by fever and pain when swallowing. Other bacterial infections like sinus and ear infections might present with pain, fever, and in some cases, discharge. Also, pneumonia is a serious condition and can be caused by a bacteria.
Cracks in the skin or sores from insect bites can become infected with streptococcus or staphylococcus and cause a nasty, angry red infection that requires medical attention.
How to Differentiate Between Viral and Bacterial Infections
It’s challenging for a parent to distinguish between viral and bacterial infections in respiratory or digestive illnesses, based solely on symptoms. While some viral infections like the common cold or a fever may improve in a matter of days with rest and hydration, bacterial infections often require medical support and treatment to get better. Bacterial pneumonia is a good example of a bacterial infection that will require treatment and, in some cases, can be life threatening.
Self-diagnosis is tricky when trying to determine a viral or bacterial infection and considering the nuances of these symptoms; it’s important to consult a child’s pediatrician for the child to get proper care.
Vaccines Can Prevent Viral and Bacterial Infections
Thankfully, when kids maintain their regular schedule of recommended vaccinations, many common but serious illnesses from certain viral and bacterial infections are prevented. These include measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, pneumonia, and chickenpox among others. Vaccines recommended for older kids help prevent multiple types of meningitis and human papillomavirus which can cause cancer. Thanks to widespread vaccination, polio has been virtually eradicated in the U.S. as a communicable disease.
Annual vaccines are also recommended for flu and COVID, seasonal viruses that can cause uncomfortable symptoms along with missed school for kids and work for caregivers. In some cases these illnesses can lead to more severe illness and even death.
At Metro Pediatrics, we follow the vaccine schedule as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, and we’re happy to welcome new patients who need to catch up on their vaccines to prevent illness and stay healthy.
Most Common Pediatric Illnesses and Their Symptoms
Childhood is marked by numerous milestones: first steps, first words, and unfortunately, the frequency of illnesses. The good news? Most pediatric illnesses are common and manageable with the right knowledge and physician support. In addition, building immunity to some of these illnesses can offer protection as one gets older. Here are some typical illnesses your child might encounter and how to recognize their symptoms:
Upper Respiratory Infections and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV): Children are especially susceptible to upper respiratory infections. They often manifest as a runny nose, mild fever, cough, and sometimes difficulty breathing. A specific concern, especially in younger children, is the Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV). While in most cases it causes cold-like symptoms, in severe cases, especially in infants, it might lead to difficulty breathing, requiring medical attention. Ask your doctor about a new immunization for RSV called Beyfortus that protects infants up to 8 months old. Some older infants with risk factors may also be eligible.
Sinus and Ear Infections: Children of all ages can experience sinus and ear infections. These bacterial infections sometimes lead to symptoms like pain, fever, nasal congestion, and discharge from the ear. Recognizing these symptoms early can save your child a lot of discomfort. Sharing the symptoms with your pediatrician allows them to track the frequency and severity, potentially recommending additional medical treatments or procedures for prevention.
Digestive System Illnesses
Stomach Flu: Not to be confused with the seasonal flu, the stomach flu primarily affects the digestive system. Symptoms to watch include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and sometimes fever. While it can be distressing to see your child unwell, most cases resolve with attention to rest and keeping your child hydrated. The biggest risk in stomach flu is dehydration. Learn more about signs of dehydration and when to contact your physician.
Urinary and Kidney Illnesses
Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs): UTIs, though more common in girls, can affect all children. They might complain of pain while urinating, and you might notice a change in the frequency of urination or even bedwetting in older children. Early treatment is crucial to avoid complications. Learn more about UTIs in kids.
Hand Foot Mouth Disease
Hand, foot, and mouth disease (HFMD) is a common viral illness among children, typically affecting those under the age of 5, though older kids and adults can also contract it. Caused by various strains of the enterovirus, HFMD is characterized by fever, sore throat, and a distinct rash that appears on the hands, feet, and inside the mouth. The rash consists of small, red spots or blisters that may be mildly painful.
While uncomfortable, HFMD is usually not serious and resolves on its own within a week to ten days. However, it’s highly contagious and spreads through saliva, nasal discharge, fluid from blisters, and feces. Good hygiene practices like frequent handwashing and avoiding close contact with infected individuals can help prevent its spread.
Immune System and Autoimmune Diseases
The immune system is our body’s defense mechanism. In children, it’s continually evolving and adapting. Sometimes, however, it can mistake the body’s cells for invaders, leading to autoimmune diseases.
Autoimmune Diseases in Children: These conditions, though less common, are important to recognize and contact your pediatrician. Regular consultations with your healthcare provider can ensure that any immune system anomalies are detected and managed. The earlier an illness is recognized, the quicker and more effectively it can be treated to ensure your child enjoys a high quality of life with a manageable disease.
- Type 1 Diabetes: This condition occurs when the immune system attacks and destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, leading to high blood sugar levels.
- Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA): Formerly known as juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, this condition involves joint inflammation and stiffness that can persist for weeks to months.
- Celiac Disease: An immune reaction to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, causing damage to the small intestine, and leading to digestive problems and nutrient absorption issues.
- Autoimmune Thyroiditis: Conditions like Hashimoto’s disease or Graves’ disease where the immune system attacks the thyroid gland, causing either an underactive or overactive thyroid.
- Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE): SLE can affect multiple organs, causing inflammation, joint pain, skin rashes, and fatigue.
- Vitiligo: While more commonly known for affecting adults, vitiligo can also appear in childhood, causing loss of skin pigment in patches due to the immune system attacking melanocytes (cells producing skin pigment).
Recognizing Severe Illness in Children
While it’s common for children to have their fair share of sniffles and tummy troubles, how do you determine when it’s a passing illness or a signal for more immediate medical attention? Understanding when to seek a doctor’s intervention can make all the difference in ensuring your child’s swift recovery.
There are a host of reasons to call your physician; high fever or dehydration, abdominal pain and skin rashes, or severe throat pain and some headaches.
Routine Checks and Physical Exams
The Power of Prevention: Regular check-ups with your child’s doctor play a pivotal role in early disease control and prevention. Routine physical exams and a bond with your child’s primary care physician will help them identify potential issues before they escalate.
Vaccinations and the Flu Vaccine: Staying updated with vaccinations, including the annual flu vaccine, is one of the best preventive measures against many common pediatric illnesses.
Primary Care Provider (PCP): It’s important for children of all ages to maintain continuity with their medical care by their primary physician. When a child is ill, their PCP will have the medical records and history needed to ensure quality and appropriate care.
Metro Pediatrics offers same-day appointments for sick or injured patients, and we’re open seven days a week to ensure kids get the help they need when they need it.
How Metropolitan Pediatrics Can Help
Parenthood is filled with many joys, unexpected challenges, and inevitable concerns about your child’s health. With every scrape, sniffle, or sudden fever there’s a bit of anxiety. But equipped with the right knowledge, parents can confidently tackle these hurdles. Recognizing symptoms of common pediatric illnesses and understanding when to seek help ensures that your child gets the best care possible at the right time.
Metropolitan Pediatrics offers a highly experienced and dedicated team that supports patients along every step of their growth with personalized care. Whether it’s regular check-ups, sick or injury care, specialized treatments, or consultations to address concerns, we’re here to ensure every child has the very best care and start to a long, healthy life.