What's The Early 'Winter Virus' And How Is It Different To Covid?

One emergency paediatrician described the situation as “winter in June”.

A&E departments are being flooded with children with “mild winter viruses”, doctors are warning.

One emergency paediatrician described the situation as “winter in June”, with data from four hospitals showing May attendances for those aged 15 and under rose from 15,954 in 2018 to 23,661 this year.

Three royal colleges have joined forces to issue new guidance for parents worried about fevers, after seeing a large rise in the numbers seeking emergency help for conditions that are not Covid.

What is the early ‘winter virus’?

As lockdown eases, more children are mixing and coming into contact with viruses that are usually seen in the winter months. These include a range of respiratory infections, bronchiolitis, paraflu and rhinovirus, all of which produce symptoms of cough, runny nose and fever.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) said the conditions are usually mild, but it has heard from paediatric emergency medicine doctors around the country describing pressures on their departments from an increase in children being brought in by anxious parents.

It said many parents haven’t ever seen fever in their child – particularly if they were born during lockdown – and are taking them to A&E rather than seeking help at pharmacies, their GP, NHS 111 or online.

Dr Camilla Kingdon, president of RCPCH, said: “Many emergency departments are overwhelmed... The biggest increase we’re seeing is in children with mild fever. Fevers are very common in young children and usually aren’t serious.

But many parents haven’t seen fever in their child before and are worried, particularly if they don’t have their usual sources of support to turn to, such as parent groups.”

“We had an incredibly busy week last week,” says Dr Dan Magnus, consultant in paediatric emergency medicine at the Bristol Royal Hospital for Children. “In fact on Monday we set a new record for the number of children seen in 24hrs in our department ever, and that’s in the middle of summer. We are effectively running a winter-level ED [emergency department] response in the summertime.”

Dr Richard Burridge, consultant paediatrician and lead for the children’s emergency department at Watford General, said: “We’re seeing three times the number of children with fevers for early June than in 2020 – which was lower because of Covid – and twice the number of children we saw in June 2019, significantly higher than we’ve ever seen before in children’s ED.”

How is winter fever different to Covid in kids?

Some of the symptoms of a mild winter virus might be similar to Covid. However, it’s worth remembering that children seem to get Covid less often than adults and it’s usually less serious. Some children show no symptoms at all.

The NHS lists the main symptoms of Covid-19, including in children, as a high temperature; a new, continuous cough; and a loss or change to the sense of smell or taste. Other studies show symptoms in kids may also include:

  • Grunting. This sound can be heard each time they exhale and can be a sign of respiratory distress in children.
  • Nasal flare. In babies especially, enlargement of the nostrils during breathing can also be a sign of respiratory distress.
  • Nasal congestion.
  • Poor appetite.
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms such as stomach pain, diarrhoea, nausea or vomiting.
  • Skin rash.
  • Conjunctivitis.

If your child has symptoms of Covid, get a PCR test (that is sent to a lab) as soon as possible. “You, your child and anyone else you live with should stay at home and not have visitors until you get the test result – only leave your home to have the test,” the NHS states.

What should parents do if their child has a mild fever?

If your child has one of the three Covid symptoms, get a PCR test. If it’s a mild fever, the RCPCH, the Royal College of Emergency Medicine (RCEM) and the Royal College of GPs say that, for most children, treatment with kids’ paracetamol or ibuprofen (but not both at the same time) is usually enough to reduce the fever. The child will start to feel better after a few days. Parents should ensure children stay hydrated by drinking fluids like water or squash.

Those who are concerned about fever in their child should call their GP practice or 111 outside of normal hours, or seek advice from a pharmacist.

The colleges stress that parents should always seek medical advice or take a child to A&E if:

  • The baby is under three months old and has a temperature of 38°C (101°F) or higher.
  • The baby is three to six months old and has a temperature of 39°C (102°F) or higher.
  • The child is not drinking well or is dehydrated. For a baby, this means that they are taking less than half of their normal feeds and having less than two wet nappies a day.
  • A child develops a red rash that does not fade when a glass is rolled over it, has a fit or is crying constantly and cannot be consoled or distracted. If the cry does not sound normal (such as high pitched), advice should also be sought.
  • The fever lasts for more than five days or the child is becoming more unwell.

Dr Michelle Jacobs, from the RCEM paediatric emergency medicine professional advisory group, said: “We absolutely understand and recognise parents may be concerned, especially if their child is young and this is the first time that they have been unwell. But if they take their child to the emergency department there may be a long delay, potentially over four hours, before being seen, which may be difficult and distressing for both parents and children.”

Professor Martin Marshall, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said that A&E is the appropriate place to take a child in an emergency but a GP, pharmacist or 111 can help if parents are worried about mild fevers.