If your little one ever socialises with other children – whether in a nursery, school or even an informal playdate environment – it’s inevitable they’re going to pick up a bug or two from time to time (or all the time, as many toddlers’ permanently runny noses would seem to attest).
It’s all part of the rich tapestry of childhood, says paediatrician Dr Salwa Abdlhak Mostafa from Brightpoint Royal Woman's Hospital, and is a necessary stepping stone on the road to building up their immunity. “A young child’s immune system has not been exposed many infections, so they are more prone to illness than older kids and adults, who have built up immunity to many germs,” says Dr Mostafa.
“Furthermore, toddlers and pre-schoolers tend to touch everything, put their hands in their mouths and play closely to each other, so it is really difficult to control spread of infection.”
Although the position of Dubai as a major international airport hub and the frequent travel of expats can mean that we get an even greater variety of diseases here, the most common childhood illnesses in the UAE are similar to those in Europe and the US. Dr Mostafa outlines the UAE’s most prevalent illnesses in children and how to treat and prevent them.
This ubiquitous respiratory illness is caused by a viral infection that usually has at least five bouts a year, says Dr Mostafa: “A child will present with a mild fever, cough, sore throat and congestion.” We all know the drill: runny nose, thermometer reading above 38-degrees C, and a generally slightly grumpy child, who might be off their food if their throat is painful.
Treatment: As the common cold is caused by a virus, antibiotics are of no use since they only work on bacterial infections. Dr Mostafa advises that lots of fluid and rest are usually sufficient to relieve symptoms, while antipyretics (fever-lowering medications) such as infant Panadol or Brufen may help to relieve fever and any aches or pains (follow the instructions carefully, or take advice from your doctor; it’s not recommended that you give your child either of these medicines for two consecutive days without seeing your doctor). Saline sprays and aspirators can also help remove excess mucus in the nose.
Prevention: You might have thought it was an old wives’ tale, but wrapping your little bundle up warm really can reduce their risk of catching a cold, according to research by The Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University. "When colds are circulating in the community, many people are mildly infected but show no symptoms," said study author Ronald Eccles. "If they become chilled, this causes a pronounced constriction of the blood vessels in the nose and shuts off the warm blood that supplies the white cells that fight infection. The reduced defences in the nose allow the virus to get stronger and common cold symptoms develop.” Air conditioning is just as capable of chilling little bodies as cold weather, so consider putting an extra layer on your little one even though we live in the desert.
Colds are also spread most easily through the hands, whether by touching an infected person or by touching a surface an infected person has touched (door knobs can harbor the cold virus for hours). So encourage little one to wash their hands properly as often as possible, and remind them to try to avoid touching their eyes nose or mouth.
The dreaded flu usually presents with a higher fever than you would get with a cold (around 40 degrees C), body aches, chills, sore throat, headache and cough, which may last for few days up to 10 days, says Dr Mostafa. “Unlike the common cold, there is a risk for serious complications from the flu, such as pneumonia and even dehydration.” If you suspect your child may have flu then it may be worth consulting with a doctor to reduce the risk of it taking a turn for the worse.
Treatment: “Generally the management of flu is similar to the common cold, although some cases might need antiviral therapy; namely Tamiflu,” says Brightpoint Royal Women's Hospital's Dr Mostafa. Tamiflu can help reduce the severity of flu symptoms and can shorten the recovery time by one to two days. It can also be used to prevent the flu in some cases, if someone in the household already has it or if there is a flu outbreak. Keep little ones well hydrated with healthy fluids and give them plenty of rest.
Prevention: The flu vaccine, which is made to target the main strains of flu viruses that are most likely to make you sick during the upcoming year, can greatly reduce your child’s risk of getting the flu, and it can be given to children annually from the age of 6 months. Good hand hygiene and encouraging children to cover their mouths or nose when they cough or sneeze can also help limit the spread of the flu.
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This painful infection is caused by a type of bacteria called streptococcus, which is responsible for almost a third of all sore throats. Dr Mostafa says strep throat usually affects older school children and rarely those who are under three years of age. “Its common symptoms are high fever, sore throat and abdominal pain.” A child may also have swollen glands, swollen tonsils and discomfort when swallowing. “Professional help is mandatory to confirm diagnosis and appropriate antibiotic prescription,” says Dr Mostafa.
Treatment: If you suspect your little one may have strep throat then a trip to the doctor, via a swab test of the fluids at the back of your child’s throat, can determine whether or not the infection is caused by strep bacteria. If it is then you may be prescribed a course of around 7 to 10 days of antibiotics. These should start to relieve your child’s symptoms after a few days, and will stop your child from being contagious after about 48 hours. It’s very important your child finishes his or her antibiotic course even when they are feeling better to prevent the infection from returning. Giving your child lots of cool and warm fluids can also help to soothe the pain of a sore throat, although avoid acidic beverages such as orange juice, which can irritate a sore throat further.
Prevention: If your child has been diagnosed with strep throat, throw out his or her toothbrush two to three days after taking the antibiotics, as otherwise the bacteria can continue to survive on the bristles and cause the infection to return. Strep throat is very contagious, so keep your child away from other children who may be infected, and of course encourage frequent hand washing.
Hand, foot and mouth and other rashes
Viral rashes with fever such as roseola, fifth disease and hand foot mouth disease are very common, particularly amongst children below the age of three, says Dr Mostafa. Although they can look dramatic, they are usually self-limiting, with full recovery to be expected within three to five days. Most of these illnesses tend to start with a fever and malaise (general feeling of being unwell), which is likely to manifest itself as irritability in toddlers, and possibly a loss of appetite. The rashes tend to appear as the initial symptoms start to pass, and have a distinctive appearance depending on the virus. Hand, foot and mouth disease manifests as sore blister-like lesions or ulcers on the tongue, gums and inside of the cheeks, as well as a red rash on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. A roseola rash is pinkish-red and generally starts on the trunk of the body before spreading; the rash’s spots turn white when touched, and may have a lighter ‘halo’ around them. Fifth disease is also known as ‘slapped cheek’, since it generally begins as a red rash on the face, which then spread to the rest of the body.
While these rashes are not serious and rarely lead to complications, it’s important that you rule out the possibility of meningitis – one sign of this is a red rash that doesn’t fade when pressed under a glass. If you are concerned, contact your doctor immediately.
Treatment: Since these viruses are self-limiting, Dr Mostafa says that only supportive treatment is recommended, meaning lots of fluids and rest, and fever-lowering medications to tackle a high temperature. However, keeping the child at home is of paramount importance until the rashes subside to prevent the spread of the disease.
Prevention: These viruses tend to be at their most contagious before the rashes appear, so it can be hard to limit the spread of the disease. Washing hands frequently, disinfecting common areas and keeping your child home if she or he is exhibiting signs of illness can all help prevent spread.
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Also known as stomach flu, gastroenteritis is an infection of the gut and causes diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain and fever. It can be caused by a variety of viruses (although rotavirus is one of the most common in young children), as well as bacteria, and it is easily spread from person to person. The main risk of gastroenteritis is dehydration from diarrhea and vomiting. Keep an eye out for signs of dehydration, which include: passing little urine (dry nappies); a dry mouth, tongue and lips; fewer tears when crying; lethargy and sunken eyes.
Treatment: Ward off dehydration as far as possible by offering extra fluids, rest and oral rehydration therapy via sachets that you can buy from the pharmacy, which replace the water and electrolytes lost from vomiting and diarrhea. In severe cases or when a child is aged under one year then medical help and even hospitalization may be needed.
Prevention: As with all common infections among children in nurseries and school, Dr Mostafa of Brightpoint Royal Women's Hospital says gastroenteritis can be reduced by the following:
- Promoting proper hand hygiene among children and care givers
- Separation of the sick child from others or sending them home
- Sanitization of toys used among toddlers and infants and disinfection of potty chairs after every use.
- Get full staff and other children fully immunized including annual flu vaccine
- Proper storage and preparation of food.
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