Nov 18, 2019, 2:17:58 PM CST Jan 23, 2024, 2:05:29 PM CST

Common winter illnesses in kids

When cold weather arrives, so do coughs, colds and stomach bugs. Learn the best ways to stay healthy.

The 5 common winter illnesses in children with symptoms, duration, and treatment. The 5 common winter illnesses in children with symptoms, duration, and treatment.

Why do children get sick in the winter?

Although illnesses like colds and the flu occur more frequently during the winter months, the reasons are not always straightforward. One myth is that cold weather can make you sick, but that is not true. Being cold itself does not cause illness. However, when it is colder outside, children tend to spend more time indoors together, easily passing germs and infections.

"Playing together inside means kids are in closer proximity to each other, sharing the air that could be contaminated with more germs, infections and viruses," explains Michael Lee, M.D., a pediatrician at Children's Health℠ and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern.

Some viruses thrive and can even spread better in the cooler, less humid air. Nasal mucous may be drier and stickier during the winter months, which some people believe can affect the spread of viruses. Lastly, if regular sleep or eating habits are interrupted during winter travel, the immune system may become more vulnerable and less effective in fighting infection.

Common illnesses during winter

This time of year, there are a few culprits often behind your child's sniffling symptoms. Dr. Lee shares important information about common winter illnesses and tips for keeping your family healthy.

1. COVID‑19

COVID‑19 is a contagious respiratory illness that can cause a wide range of symptoms, including cough and fever. Children can get COVID‑19 at any time of the year, including the winter months.

It is not possible to tell the difference between COVID‑19 and a cold or upper respiratory infection without testing. Because of that, it is best to get tested if your child has any symptoms or was exposed to COVID‑19.

The best way to prevent COVID‑19 is for everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated. Washing hands frequently, wearing face masks and avoiding crowds can also help prevent the spread of illness.

Call your pediatrician if: Your child has a fever or chills, a cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, a headache, loss of taste or smell, a sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea/vomiting or diarrhea. Your child should get tested for COVID‑19 if they are experiencing a combination of any of these symptoms, especially if they have been exposed to someone who has COVID‑19.

2. RSV

Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is a common virus. When older children and adults get RSV, they typically feel like they have a bad cold. However, RSV can be serious in infants. This is because it can cause bronchiolitis, where mucus builds up in the tiny airways that lead to the lungs and makes breathing difficult. Because infants' airways are so tiny, swelling in those airways can be particularly dangerous.

Symptoms of RSV include:

  • Cough
  • Runny nose
  • Fever
  • Upper airway congestion, such as nasal congestion and wheezing
  • Rapid breathing

In newborns during the first month of life, RSV can even cause apnea, which is an unexplained cessation or pause in breathing.

Symptoms of RSV typically start slowly over the first 1-2 days and worsen between days 3-7. RSV can last up to two weeks, though some kids will have symptoms for up to three weeks.

To help alleviate symptoms, parents can use a bulb syringe and saline drops to remove nasal fluids, provide plenty of fluids and try a vaporizer to help keep the air moist and make breathing easier.

3. Flu

Influenza, or the flu, is a very contagious respiratory virus. The onset of the flu is often sudden and associated with the following symptoms:

  • High fever (between 103-104°F)
  • Cough
  • Runny nose
  • Congestion
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Mild conjunctivitis (red or irritated eyes)
  • Possible vomiting/diarrhea in children

If symptoms of the flu are detected early, an antiviral medicine such as Tamiflu may be helpful. This medicine works best when given during the first 48 hours of symptoms. The flu vaccine is the best way to prevent the flu and to minimize complications.

4. Common cold

The common cold is a viral infection usually associated with more mild symptoms; however, children can have a low-grade fever early in the illness. Although colds seem to occur more often during the winter months, they can occur year-round. Many different viruses can cause a cold, which can last 5-14 days.

Symptoms of a common cold include:

  • Runny nose
  • Congestion
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Fever

Vomiting and diarrhea usually don't accompany a cold.

When a child has a common cold, providing comfort and support is important. Help your child stay hydrated and make sure they are getting plenty of rest. Cough and cold medications are not recommended for children under age 6.

5. Strep throat

Strep throat is a contagious bacterial infection that is more common during the fall, winter and early spring. It is especially common in children between the ages of 5 and 15.

Symptoms of strep throat can include:

  • Sore throat
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Fever
  • Stomach ache
  • Headache

A cough and runny nose do not accompany strep throat. A red rash can sometimes develop in kids with strep throat, resulting in a diagnosis of scarlet fever.

Strep throat can be easily and quickly treated with antibiotics. There are potential complications of strep throat such as throat abscess, retropharyngeal abscess, and rarely, rheumatic fever. If you suspect your child has strep throat, treatment is very important.

6. Stomach flu

Viral gastroenteritis is an intestinal infection that is often referred to as a stomach bug or the stomach flu. However, it is not related to the common flu or the influenza virus; it is most commonly caused by norovirus. Stomach viruses are very contagious and can cause severe symptoms that vary in duration. Typically, vomiting may last 1-2 days, but some GI symptoms can last up to one week.

Symptoms of viral gastroenteritis can include:

  • Vomiting
  • Watery diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Mild fever
  • Headache
  • Fatigue

These viruses develop quickly – usually within 12- 48 hours, so kids and parents should make sure they wash their hands thoroughly and often.

To help your child through the symptoms of stomach flu, parents should offer supportive care by providing plenty of fluids or ice chips and easy to digest foods. In severe cases, anti-diarrheal or anti-nausea medicine might be prescribed.

How to prevent getting sick in the winter

There are a few preventive measures you can help your kids practice to reduce the risk of winter illness. Dr. Lee recommends that kids:

  • Wash hands frequently
  • Stay up to date on vaccinations, including your annual flu vaccine and your COVID‑19 vaccine if eligible
  • Get the RSV shot for babies up to 8-months-old and the booster shot for babies 8-19 months old if they have an underlying health condition that makes them eligible
  • Eat healthy foods and drink plenty of water
  • Get plenty of rest
  • Stay home if not feeling well to prevent germs from spreading

Learn more

Children's Health Primary Care offers comprehensive health care for children from birth through young adulthood. Our pediatricians combine quality care with evidence-based practice to meet your child’s medical needs. Learn more and find a pediatrician.

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