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Kids Winter Virus Watch

24/01/2017 16:08
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As well as the cold weather, winter brings with it a whole host of childhood viral illnesses. So it's important for parents to be mindful of what's out there, how to deal with them and when to seek help.

Here are five important ones to watch out for...

Flu

Flu is caused by the influenza virus and symptoms are very similar to a cold (also a viral illness). However, the difference is that it could make you much more unwell. The symptoms of flu include high fever, general malaise, muscle aches and pains, coughing, sneezing, diarrhea and vomiting.

Although most children will recover with simple, supportive treatment (rest, hydration, pain and fever medicine etc.), they are very likely to pass it on to others - especially family members. Unlike colds, flu can lead to serious complications, particularly in the very young, the elderly, those with long-term medical problems and pregnant women.

That's why prevention is key. If your little one is affected, make sure you pay particular attention to hand hygiene if coughing and sneezing (remember to 'catch it, bin it, kill it') to prevent spread. If your child has long-term medical problems then they may be eligible for a free flu vaccination, and currently a national nasal spray flu vaccination programme is being rolled out to various ages too.

Croup

Many people will recognise the seal-like, barking cough of croup - a viral infection of the voice box (larynx) and windpipe (trachea). The infection causes the upper airways to become inflamed, which can result in noisy breathing when inhaling (something called stridor), difficulty breathing, a characteristic cough and fever.

If symptoms are mild, it doesn't need treatment and will pass like other viruses. However, if symptoms are significant then your child may need steroid medication to help calm the inflammation in their airways down. Rarely, symptoms can be severe and could require other special medication and a stay in hospital.

Bronchiolitis

Bronchiolitis is a viral infection of the lungs - most commonly due to something called respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). This virus starts off very similar to a cold, but then the lungs become inflamed and full of mucus. This leads to a raspy-sounding cough, wheezing and makes it harder for your child to breathe, which can show as a 'sucking in' of the chest. Often they will find it harder to feed too.

Most children will have mild symptoms and get better without any special treatment. Smaller children may benefit from saline nose drops to help loosen mucus in the nose and that can help make feeding easier.

However, if your child's symptoms are severe or they are really struggling to feed, then they should be checked by a medical professional as they may need hospital treatment. This is especially the case for babies under 3 months, those with heart and lung problems, and babies born prematurely as these children are at higher risk of severe disease.

Certain special cases may be offered an annual RSV vaccine, but this is expensive and only given to children at high risk.

Gastroenteritis

Gastroenteritis is a medical term for diarrhea and vomiting caused by stomach bugs (also sometimes called 'stomach flu'). This could be caused by a range of different viruses, but commonly due things like rotavirus and norovirus.

Symptoms include fever, stomach pains, vomiting and diarrhea. Usually the vomiting settles first and the diarrhea continues for a while longer. Since there is no cure for viruses, treatment is based on controlling the symptoms: medicine for pain and fever (e.g. paracetamol and ibuprofen) and rehydration to replace fluids lost through vomiting and diarrhea. Oral rehydration sachets are available from pharmacies and supermarkets, and the trick is to give small amounts of fluid often and build up gradually.

If your child can't keep anything down, especially if they aren't passing much urine, then they may be getting dehydrated and will need to see a medical professional. Remember: viral gastroenteritis is very catchy so wash your hands thoroughly when dealing with soiled items!

Tonsillitis

Tonsillitis is the name given to inflammation of the tonsils - fleshy tissue either side of the back of the throat. It's very common during the winter and, contrary to popular belief, is usually caused by the same viruses that cause colds.

Symptoms include fever, sore throat and swelling of the glands in the neck. Often this will lead to difficulty in swallowing so children will feed less or only take small amounts each time. Treatment is aimed at reducing discomfort by using painkillers and throat-numbing sprays, whilst the body gets rid of the virus. Giving children cold drinks and jelly or ice-lollies is a great way to soothe the throat and keep up fluid intake.

Tonsillitis can sometimes be caused by bacteria. If your child's symptoms are severe, they aren't getting better with simple treatment, or they develop a rash, then they should see a doctor in case they need antibiotics.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for viruses and antibiotics will not help. Although they can be unpleasant, the majority of viruses that affect children won't be serious and they will recover by themselves.

Fever is a very common symptom for all of these illnesses, but there is usually no need to panic as it won't harm your child. However, if they are under the age of 6 months and have a high fever or the fever lasts for longer than 5 days, you should get them checked in case they have something more serious. Likewise, if your child isn't getting better with simple support, if they have any signs of serious illness or you're worried about them, make sure you seek medical advice.

For more information, check the NHS Choices website.

Dr. Ranj Singh is a NHS Doctor, Presenter of ITV's new health show Save Money: Good Health & Resident Doctor on This Morning (nominated for best Live Magazine Show at the 2017 National Television Awards). Catch Dr Ranj on This Morning weekdays, 10.30am on ITV. To vote for This Morning at the NTAs visit www.nationaltvawards.com/vote.

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