Common Kids’ Infections (0 to 12 years)

At a Glance

It can be extremely frightening when your child is ill and you don’t know what to do. The good news is that most infections are self-limiting or easily treatable. Read below for some quick summaries of common infectious diseases in kids (ages 0 to 12 years) and how to diagnose, treat, and prevent them.

Diarrhea

  • What: Injury to the inner lining of the intestine, caused by bacterial (salmonella, shigella, E. coli, campylobacter) viral (enteroviruses), or parasitic (Giardia) infections. Spread by hand-to-mouth contact with contaminated items
  • Who: Can occur at any age, but risk of dehydration is greater in small children, especially infants
  • Symptoms: Loose, watery stools that may be accompanied by vomiting, fever, and irritability
  • Treatment: Rehydrate with electrolyte solution (i.e. Pedialyte). Avoid sweetened beverages and antidiarrheal medications for children under 2
  • Prevention: Wash hands frequently, and drink pasteurized milk only. Use clean water and safe food preparation and storage practices.
  • When to call the doctor: If your child is an infant, if there's blood in the stool or evidence of dehydration, such as thirst, dry lips or mouth, decreased urine output that is dark in color, flushed skin, sunken eyes, cramps and stiff joints, severe fatigue, irritability, and headache.
  • Smart Tip: Stock up on Pedialyte!

Colds (See Colds)

  • What: Common viral infection in the upper respiratory tract
  • Who: Any age, but more common in small children and in daycares
  • Symptoms: Runny nose, sneezing, medium-grade fever, sore throat, cough, swollen glands
  • Treatment: Mostly self-limiting with no long-term effects; acetaminophen or ibuprofen for fever; saline nose drops for infants; cold-water humidifier
  • Prevention: Covering your mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing; frequent hand washing
  • When to call the doctor: If your child is an infant, if there's difficulty breathing (wheezing, retracting), thick, runny, green mucus, a persistent cough lasting more than a week, ear pain, high fever, or excessive sleepiness or crankiness. Blue lips or nose? Yikes--sounds like it's time for the ER!
  • Smart Tip: Don’t give cold medication to small children without consulting your pediatrician!

Ear Infections

  • What: Bacterial infection in ear fluid that builds up during colds and respiratory infections
  • Who: More common in small children under 2 around cold and flu season; common in daycares
  • Symptoms: Ear pain, indicated by pulling at the ear, increased crying during feedings, trouble sleeping, and fever (100-104°F)
  • Treatment: Usually treatments for symptoms, such as pain medication, may be used. However, antibiotics may be necessary on occasion.
  • Prevention: Same as cold prevention, since ear infections are secondary to colds
  • When to call your doctor: As soon as possible for early diagnosis and treatment
  • Smart Tip: If prescribed, follow doctor’s orders for the full course of antibiotics to prevent recurrent infection!

Croup (Viral)

  • What: Viral infection that starts as a cold and results in swelling of the voice box and windpipe; More common between October and March
  • Who: Mostly children between 6 months and 3 years
  • Symptoms: Cold symptoms that develop into noisy and labored breathing, followed by a barking cough. Fevers can range from low-grade to high
  • Treatment: Steam baths for 15-20 minutes to ease breathing; cold-water humidifier; serious infection that does not improve with steam treatment may be treated with prescribed steroids to reduce swelling
  • Prevention: Same as cold prevention, since viral croup usually begins with a cold
  • When to call the doctor: Immediately. If breathing is a struggle, call 911
  • Smart Tip: Get a cold-water humidifier!

Strep Throat

  • What: A bacterial infection (Streptococcus pyogenes) that causes inflammation in the throat
  • Who: Any age
  • Symptoms: Painful sore throat; thickened, bloody nasal discharge; crankiness; swollen neck glands, with low-grade to high fever; diagnosis with quick-result strep test
  • Treatment: Antibiotics, if diagnosis is positive for strep throat
  • Prevention: Stay away from infected people who may be contagious
  • When to call the doctor: If the sore throat persists or if there is difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • Smart Tip: Follow doctor’s orders for antibiotics to prevent recurrent infection!
  • See Strep Throat FAQs

Pink Eye (Conjunctivitis)

  • What: Bacterial or viral infection in the eyelid that causes inflammation
  • Who: Any age, but more common in small children
  • Symptoms: Red or pink eyes accompanied by tearing and discharge
  • Treatment: Self-limited (up to 1 week), If your medical provider suspects a bacterial cause, antibiotic drops or ointment may be prescribed.
  • Prevention: Extremely contagious; wash hands frequently, especially before and after touching areas around infected eyes
  • When to call the doctor: As soon as possible
  • Smart Tip: Administering eye drops to small children can be challenging. Put antibiotic eye drop on inner corner of closed eye and tell your child to blink.

Bladder (or Urinary Tract) Infections

  • What: Bacterial infections in the urinary tract, often caused by contamination from stool
  • Who: Common in young girls
  • Symptoms: Lower abdominal pain, frequent and painful urination, and fever; diagnosis from urine sample and culture
  • Treatment: Antibiotics
  • Prevention: Proper cleaning after bowel movements
  • When to call the doctor: As soon as possible to avoid serious damage to the urinary tract
  • Smart Tip: Wipe from front to back after bowel movements and during diaper changes.


Sources:

The American Academy of Pediatrics. The Complete and Authoritative Guide: Caring for Your Baby and Young Child, Birth to Age 5. Steven P. Shelov, MD, Editor-in-Chief. New York, NY.Bantam Books.

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