Last winter your child may not have gotten many typical wintertime ailments because we were all spending much of our time at home. But with more socializing and in-person classes this winter, it’s likely kids may be sick more frequently. “We’ve already seen respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, which is a common respiratory virus that causes cold-like symptoms, much earlier than usual this year,” says David Cennimo, MD, pediatric and adult infectious disease specialist at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. “It flared over the summer, which isn’t typically when we see these cases.”
The symptoms of RSV in older kids and adults are indistinguishable from any other cold virus. However, RSV can be life-threatening for small children. “The risk is that little kids younger than age 2, especially babies who were born prematurely, are at greater risk of bronchiolitis, an inflammation of the small airways in the lungs, and pneumonia,” says Mohammed Jawaad Hussain, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at Cooper Medical School. “If your baby was born prematurely, talk to your pediatrician about potential medications that may reduce the risk of severe RSV.”
The good news is that there’s no reason to panic about what’s ahead. Kids will be kids and pick up all kinds of minor sniffles that they’ll quickly get over. Remind them to wash, wash, wash their hands, especially after the bathroom and before meals. And keep them home when they’re sick. Here’s what to watch for and how to treat the most common wintertime illnesses:
Kids experience the same kinds of symptoms that adults do with colds, says Cennimo. They’ll have a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, cough, and sometimes a fever (typically below 101 degrees Fahrenheit). Sore throat also is common in preschoolers and kindergarteners. Body aches are not common.
Treatment: “Unfortunately, you kind of have to join in their misery because there aren’t good treatments,” says Cennimo. But there are a few things that may help them feel a little better (or at least make you feel like you’re trying to do something to ease your child’s discomfort). For little kids who don’t have the coordination to blow their noses yet, squirt saline spray up their nose, then suction out the mucus. Bigger kids can take a steamy shower to help break up the mucus. Running a cool-mist humidifier in the bedroom may also help. For coughs, research has shown that over-the-counter cough medications aren’t particularly effective for kids. Instead, give little kids a teaspoon of honey or a tablespoon for older kids before bed to soothe the throat (but don’t give honey to kids younger than a year old), says Hussain. Colds typically last about a week, but if it seems to be lingering, getting worse, or your child is wheezing or struggling to breathe, call your pediatrician.
Symptoms seem to hit your child all of a sudden and may include body aches, fatigue, cough and fever (usually more than 100.4 degrees). Little kids also are more likely than adults to have GI issues such as diarrhea or vomiting. They also may experience chills, headache and congestion. If your kid got the flu vaccine, symptoms may be mild, says Cennimo.
Treatment: If symptoms just kicked in, your pediatrician may be able to prescribe an antiviral medication, though these work best if started within the first day or two of showing symptoms. It’s fine to give acetaminophen or ibuprofen to help your kid feel more comfortable with a fever, but you don’t have to give it around the clock. “I tell parents if the child is sleeping, let them sleep. Don’t wake your child up to give anything,” says Hussain. “I also strongly recommend against over-the-counter multi-purpose medications, which have a risk of overdose with acetaminophen.” Saline sprays, humidifiers, hot showers and honey for cough also provide some relief, even if temporary. And don’t underestimate the power of hot soup to soothe a scratchy throat and provide some TLC, says Hussain. The flu lasts about a week, but call your pediatrician if your child feels worse or begins to have ear pain, cough or fever that won’t abate.
A sore throat is a common early symptom of a cold, often appearing before any other complaints. But it’s worth giving your pediatrician a call to see if your child should be tested for strep. “That’s not something we can evaluate by phone or telemedicine, so I usually have kids come in to be tested,” says Hussain. An in-office rapid test, as well as a culture swab which takes a few days, will likely be done to evaluate your child. Other symptoms of strep include fever, headache and upset tummy. Cough and runny nose are typically not seen with strep.
Treatment: Your child’s doctor will write a prescription for antibiotics if your child has strep. Also, acetaminophen or ibuprofen will help soothe the pain. Anesthetic sprays are not particularly helpful because their effects last only about an hour. Hot soup also may soothe the pain. The sore throat usually starts to feel better after 48 hours on antibiotics. But if your child seems worse or the fever lasts for more than two days after starting antibiotics or the sore throat lasts for more than three days after starting antibiotics, call your pediatrician.
Is it a cold or COVID?
It’s understandable that we’re all on guard these days about getting sick. So, when your child starts to sniffle, how do you know if it’s just another kiddie cold or COVID? “There’s no good way to know without testing because clinically, it all looks the same in kids,” says Cennimo. “If you suspect COVID, call your pediatrician and have your child tested.”