By Allison Bartlett, MD, MS
It’s normal for parents to take extra precautions to keep children healthy during the fall and winter seasons. Colds, the flu, COVID and other respiratory viruses are most common at this time of year. However, this year’s virus season is anything but normal.
Respiratory viruses, such as RSV, enterovirus, rhinovirus, parainfluenza, adenovirus and others, are spreading earlier and at a more alarming rate than usual this year.
These viruses are also causing more severe illness than they normally do in young children, leading to more hospitalizations and exceptionally long wait times in pediatric emergency rooms across the nation.
As your child interacts with classmates, friends, and family members this fall and winter, please consider these important steps to help protect them from seasonal viruses and know what to do if your child gets sick.
What can I do to help my child avoid getting sick?
Many of the respiratory viruses we see are spread through droplets from coughing, sneezing, talking, breathing out, or touching surfaces where these droplets land. So, this may be hard to control. But there are some precautions you can control, including encouraging your child to:
- Wash their hands regularly with soap and warm water and/or use hand sanitizer, especially before eating, after using the restroom, and after touching public surfaces.
- Avoid touching their face.
- Keep distance from people who have symptoms when possible. And stay home from school and other activities when sick.
- Drink plenty of water and eat fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Get the recommended amount of sleep for their age. Talk with their pediatrician if you’re unsure how much sleep your child needs.
- Get regular, age-appropriate exercise.
It’s also helpful to demonstrate and encourage good cough etiquette, such as coughing into your elbow or using tissue and throwing it away immediately. These are good habits that kids can learn to help prevent the spread of viruses and other germs.
Will the flu shot or other vaccinations stop my child from getting sick?
Getting recommended vaccinations is an important part of helping your child either avoid or fight certain viruses. It doesn’t guarantee that your child won’t catch a virus, but getting your family vaccinated makes them less vulnerable to severe illness even if they do get sick.
The flu vaccine is the best way to protect you, your family and others from getting the flu. It takes a while to take effect, so schedule yours today if you haven’t gotten one yet.
When more people are vaccinated, fewer children become sick enough to get admitted to the hospital. This helps to keep our space and staff available to provide critical and emergency care to the children who need it most.
How do I know if my child has a cold, the flu or a different respiratory virus?
If your child is sick, it’s best to contact their pediatrician to confirm their diagnosis and avoid unnecessary trips to the doctor. Many common respiratory viruses are difficult to identify because they have similar symptoms, including:
- Cough, congestion and/or runny nose
- Aches and pains
- Sore throat
- Decreased appetite
Discussing your child’s symptoms with their pediatrician is the best way to know what virus they have and what steps to take next. The pediatrician may provide care instructions for home or suggest an in-person or video visit if necessary.
When should I bring my child to the ER for viral symptoms?
Shortness of breath
Go to the emergency room or call 911 if your child is having any difficulty breathing. Difficulty breathing can look like breathing faster than normal or using muscles in their neck, chest or belly to breathe.
Contact your pediatrician immediately if your newborn has a temperature higher than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit.
Older children may need to see a doctor if they have:
- A temperature higher than 104 degrees Fahrenheit
- A fever that lasts for 24 hours at age 2 or younger
- A fever that lasts for three days at any age
When in doubt, call the pediatrician for help deciding whether to go to the ER or schedule an appointment.
If your infant or toddler is having fewer wet diapers and refusing to drink because of their symptoms, they may need to be seen by a doctor. Call the pediatrician to discuss your child’s symptoms, so they can advise whether or not your child needs emergency care.
What should I do if my child has a fever?
If your child feels warm, take their temperature. You can use any over-the-counter thermometer. For infants, the most accurate temperature is rectal. Anything higher than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit is a fever.
You can treat a fever with acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil). If your child is under 6 months old, you should use Tylenol.
When should I worry about my newborn’s fever?
If your newborn has a temperature above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, they need to see their pediatrician or go to the emergency room. Call the pediatrician. They’ll help you decide where your infant needs to be seen.
How can I help my child’s cough?
Do not use over-the-counter cough syrups or cold medications for children younger than age 6. These can be harmful to your child. Call or visit your child’s pediatrician for advice on over-the-counter medications if your child is older than age 6.
You can try a teaspoon of honey if your child is older than one year old to soothe the throat. Do not give honey to a child under one year of age.
How can I help my congested infant breathe or sleep more comfortably?
Suctioning your infant’s nose with a bulb syringe or nasal aspirator can help them breathe more comfortably. Make sure to use saline (salt water) drops and gently suction. Too much suctioning can cause swelling and irritation, so limit suctioning to three to four times per day.
A humidifier may also help.
Can kids take Tamiflu?
Tamiflu (oseltamivir phosphate) is an approved prescription medication for the flu virus. It’s sometimes recommended for children who are:
- Hospitalized with the flu
- Experiencing serious complications
- Younger than age 5 — especially infants and toddlers younger than age 2 — with high risk for complications due to a neurologic condition, chronic lung disease or a weakened immune system
This medication may only shorten the course of the flu by a day. Common side effects include nausea and vomiting. Ask your child’s pediatrician about the use of Tamiflu.
Allison Bartlett, MD, MS, is on the faculty at the University of Chicago and she provides care for patients specializing in the medical management of acute and chronic infectious diseases. She also is working to improve the safety and efficacy of antibiotic use in children.