As children go back to school, so do the bugs. Is it the fact that children mingle more with each other or is it the season when more bugs are prevalent? It is a combination of both.

Around this time of year, various viruses circulate until they find the right host to infect. Two common viruses present around this time are those causing the common cold and influenza (the flu). These bugs are different, and we need to prepare for them.

Common cold

Colds (medically known as upper respiratory infections) affect the air passages in the head, neck and chest. The nose, throat, sinuses, ears, windpipe (trachea) and airways of the lung (bronchi) can all be affected.

Without treatment, a cold will improve in a week or two. Colds are the most common illness among children. Although children often feel better within three or four days of developing the infection, they may continue coughing for two to three weeks. A cold can recur many times throughout the season. In fact, many children catch up to six colds a year.

Colds are caused by the picornavirus and coronavirus viruses, which can spread easily, especially during the first three or four days of illness. One can catch a cold at home, work, school or day care by touching someone who has a cold. It can also spread though close contact with a sick person when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

One can catch a cold from infected tissues (loaded with viruses) left lying about irresponsibly by someone who is sick. You are most likely to get a cold in the winter and are most susceptible if you are tired, under stress or suffer from allergies (especially hay fever).

Typical symptoms of common colds include sneezing, runny or stuffy nose, headache, cough, sore throat, trouble breathing, fatigue, muscle aches and red, watery eyes. Some people develop a fever, which is usually low grade.

Over-the-counter medications may relieve a headache, runny nose or fever. Use them exactly as directed by the doctor or pharmacist. Always remember that common colds are caused by viruses, so antibiotics cannot cure them.

If someone is displaying common cold symptoms they need to take special care of themselves. It is recommended to use a cool-mist humidi­fier to increase air moisture, so one can breathe more easily. It is also important to rest as much as possible and get plenty of sleep.

Preventing the spread of colds is essential. If you have a cold it is important to wash you hands  frequently, especially after blowing your nose. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you sneeze or cough. Throw away tissues immediately. Do not leave them lying about since these will contain an army of viruses ready to attack a new victim. Drinking fluids is essential. It is recommended to drink eight to 10 glasses of clear liquids, such as water, fresh citrus juice, tea and clear soups, every day.

To avoid catching another upper respiratory infection, wash your hands after touching someone who has a cold. Avoid crowded places, especially in the winter, and eat a balanced diet. Keep children at home until their temperature is normal to avoid infecting other children.

A child with a common cold seems sleepier than usual, urinates less than normal, has a dry mouth and cracked lips, cries without tears, or seems dizzy. These are signs of dehydration.

You can catch a cold from infected tissues left lying about irresponsibly by someone who is sick

Call your doctor if your child: develops a high temperature or if the fever lasts more than a couple of days; has a sore throat that gets worse, or you see white or yellow spots in the throat; the cough gets worse or lasts more than 10 days; develops a rash; has large and tender lumps in the neck; deve­lops an earache or a bad headache; has a thick, green or yellow discharge from the nose; coughs up thick yellow, green, grey or bloody mucus; or if your child’s eyes grow red and become coated with a yellow discharge.

Seek medical care immediately if your child has trouble breathing or develops chest pain or your child’s skin or nails look grey or blue.

Flu (influenza) in children

Flu, medically known as influ­enza, is an infection of the nose, throat, windpipe and airways in the lung. Influenza is also caused by a virus called the influenza virus of which there are many types. The germ is quickly spread from an infected person to others by coughing and sneezing.

Typical symptoms of influ­enza include chills, fever, headache, body aches, sore throat, cough, swollen glands, vomiting and diarrhoea. The child also may have a runny nose, earache and red, watery, sore eyes. The disease is at its peak during the first two days. The coughing and tiredness may last another week or longer.

There is no cure for the flu. Antibiotics will not work since this is a virus. Antibiotics are prescribed if there is a superimposed bacterial infection; your doctor can advise you on this.

The best remedy is plenty of rest and liquids.

Do not give Aspirin to a child with influenza if they are under 18 as this could lead to brain and liver damage (Reye’s syndrome). Read carefully the label of any over-the-counter medicines to check whether they contain Aspirin.

Over-the-counter medicine will help relieve fever and body aches.

Use a cool-mist humidifier to increase moisture in the child’s room. This will make breathing easier.

A child should rest until their temperature is normal (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit or 37 degrees Celsius). This usually takes three to four days.

Give the child plenty of liquids such as water, unsweetened juice or broth. Do not worry about giving solid food until the child is better.

Wash the child’s hands often to prevent spread of germs. This is especially important after they blow their nose and before they touch food. Teach children to cover their mouth when coughing or sneezing.

Keep your child home from day care or school until the fever has gone (usually two or three days).

Call your doctor: if the fever lasts more than 36 hours; the child has shortness of breath while resting or a deep cough with lots of mucus or chest pain; or the child has nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea.

Seek medical care immediately if: your child is not drinking enough fluids and has signs of water loss such as listlessness, dry mouth, little or no urination, wrinkled skin, no tears, dizziness, or, in babies, a sunken soft spot on the top of the head; the child has trouble breathing or the skin or nails turn bluish; the child develops severe neck pain or stiffness; the child acts confused or is too sleepy, has changes in beha­viour or has seizures; or the child has a very high fever.

The best way to prevent becoming ill with influenza is by getting the influenza vaccine. Since the virus changes its form easily over time, one needs to get the flu jab every year, usually in October.

Certain children have an in­creased risk of getting bronchitis or a chest infection, which may be serious and require treatment in hospital. These include children who: suffer from asthma; have heart, liver, lung or kidney disease; are diabetic; or have a problem with their immune system, the defence mechanism that fights infections.

The Department of Health gives this vaccine free of charge to children aged six months to five years.

Influenza is a common illness that can be prevented. Protect yourself and others by getting the flu vaccine.

Dr Charmaine Gauci is Superintendent of Public Health.  

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