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Childhood Illnesses: A Rundown

by Emma Morrell

Kids. They’re walking germ factories, or at least that’s how it can seem! But how do you know what’s normal and what’s serious? What do you hunker down with, and what do you go to the doctor for? When should you let things run their course, and when should you head straight to the hospital? After remote learning for so long, our children’s bodies have missed being exposed to normal, everyday viruses. With a return to in-person schooling, that has all changed. So here’s the lowdown on what’s common and what’s not, what’s serious, and what’s just another day in the life of a parent.


Common Conditions

It’s normal for children to become unwell from time to time. Developing their immune systems includes catching a variety of bugs and viruses as they become exposed to them. “It is common to have six to eight colds per year and coughs can unfortunately last a couple of weeks,” says Julie Oh, MD, a paediatrician at the International Medical Centre. “Part of the art of medicine is to determine if it is a bacterial or viral illness and the best type of medicine needed to help the body get better.”

Common illnesses include coughs, congestion, colds, sore throats, headaches, urinary tract infections, bronchiolitis, allergic rhinitis, eczema, conjunctivitis, constipation, and stomach bugs. Occasionally, they will turn out to be more serious illnesses such as ear infections, tonsillitis, croup, strep throat, influenza, pneumonia, and meningitis. But most of the time, these are easily treated at home with lots of rest, fluids, and paracetamol or ibuprofen to bring down fevers and relieve discomfort. “During acute illnesses, it is very important to make sure the child is still acting like themselves, breathing easily, and staying hydrated,” says Dr Oh. Sometimes, they might require a trip to the doctor for further evaluation and medications.

Some less common but contagious diseases to look out for include slapped cheek disease; impetigo; hand, foot, and mouth disease; whooping cough (pertussis); roseola; and glandular fever (also known as mononucleosis or mono). Children may also require treatment for hay fever (allergies), headlice, threadworms (pinworms), and heatstroke.


Illnesses Needing Medical Attention

Just as kids are very likely to pick up all kinds of illnesses that they just need to rest and recover from, there will be several times in a child’s life when you will need to take them to the doctor. In some circumstances, you may need to go to a hospital or an urgent care clinic.

Sometimes, this will be because the illness requires immediate and urgent attention with fast test results. Other times, it will be because children can become rapidly unwell at any time of the day or night and on any day of the week. While not serious, treatment may not be able to wait for your doctor’s office to open on the next working day.

These sorts of illnesses can range from minor ones to those requiring urgent treatment or even surgery. They can include croup, febrile seizures, glue ear requiring grommets or ear tubes, tonsillitis, abscesses, appendicitis, hernias, gallstones, and kidney stones. You may also find yourself going to the doctor for various physical problems such as objects stuck in ears or noses, cuts, sprains, broken bones, and burns.


Vaccine-preventable Illnesses

There are a variety of diseases for which modern medicine has developed vaccines (or immunisations). Indeed, some of these illnesses once injured or killed thousands of children. Now, many have been completely wiped out, while others are getting closer to that point. Not only do immunisations protect our children (and us) from these serious diseases, they also help to prevent their spread to other people through herd immunity. This is important, especially for people who, for some reason, are unable to get vaccinated. Sometimes governments or schools may require children to have had these vaccinations. Other times they will be optional, and you can choose to vaccinate against them (perhaps at your own cost).

Illnesses that can be vaccinated against include chickenpox (also known as varicella); whooping cough; measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR); rotavirus; tetanus; influenza; hepatitis A and B; polio; diphtheria; and meningitis (meningitis B, meningococcal ACWY). “Immunisations and well child checks are a great way for the family and the doctor to get to know each other so when there is an emergency or an acute illness, the doctor will already know most of the medical history,” says Dr Oh.


Chronic Illnesses

As hard as it is to think about, there are times when there are problems with children that require serious intervention from medical specialists.

While acute illnesses tend to come on quickly, chronic conditions last for much longer—usually more than a year. They include conditions like asthma, diabetes, congenital heart disease, arthritis, cystic fibrosis, spina bifida, hearing or visual impairments, cerebral palsy, autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and depression. Childhood cancers, while rare, are also something to look out for.


When to See the Doctor

Dr Ghada Nasrat, a former paediatric endocrinologist at Feto Maternal Medical Centre says you should take your child to a doctor whenever you are worried. “Reassurance, at many times, is all we do, and as a parent, I understand how valuable that is,” she says.

While it’s difficult to  provide an exhaustive list of symptoms to cover all situations, some warning signs include:

For Acute Conditions (Symptoms May Develop Quickly)

  • stopping breathing or having serious difficulties breathing such as rapid breathing or panting, a throaty noise while breathing, struggling to catch a breath, and/or sucking in the stomach under the ribs
  • floppy and unresponsive/won’t wake up/ disoriented or confused/quiet and listless, even with only a low-grade fever
  • a fit (convulsion) that isn’t stopping, such as a febrile seizure
  • a spotty, purple-red rash that doesn’t fade when a glass is rolled over it severe bleeding that won’t stop
  • a very low or high temperature—particularly if it does not come down with paracetamol or ibuprofen—or any temperature in a baby younger than 12 weeks old
  • blue, pale, blotchy, or ashen (grey) skin
  • crying constantly, and you cannot console or distract them, or the cry does not sound like their normal cry
  • green vomit
  • bloody stools
  • signs of dehydration (like dry nappies)


For Chronic Conditions (Symptoms May Occur Over a Longer Time)

  • unusual lump or swelling
  • unexplained paleness and loss of energy
  • easy bruising or bleeding
  • ongoing pain in one area of the body
  • limping
  • unexplained fever or illness that doesn’t go away
  • frequent headaches, often with vomiting
  • sudden eye or vision changes
  • sudden unexplained weight loss
  • any ongoing symptom that doesn’t go away with time


For Injuries

  • severe scalds or burns
  • any injury to the head
  • injuries following a fall from a height
  • injuries that appear to be causing more distress and pain than normal
  • a severe allergic reaction
  • becoming unwell after swallowing something harmful—like medicine or a button battery (take the packet with you to show the doctor)
  • possible serious injury by another person

Maybe you are the fortunate parent whose children never get sick. Or maybe you’re the one feeling like you’re constantly keeping your kids off school for one thing or another. You might find yourself not wanting to bother the doctor for “nothing” or worried about being that neurotic parent. Or you might have felt that awful guilt of letting your child go to bed with a broken bone thinking it was just a sprain, only to find yourself with them at the hospital the next day getting a cast. So, how can you really tell when something is wrong?


“My best advice is to remember that you are the parent. You know this child best, and you are the ones who know what is normal for them and what is not,” advises Sara, an Australian GP and mum of four who lived in Doha. She says that if you think something is wrong, you should take your child to the doctor and get the answers you need.


Remember, any doctor will tell you they would rather talk to a time-waster than not talk to someone who didn’t want to make a fuss and ended up wishing they did. So, trust your instincts, and if you’re ever in doubt, go to the doctor. They’re here to help.


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