As an adult, I never really noticed an uptick in illnesses in the winter. My hygiene remains the same year round, I still have to work in the same environment and basically, I thought that to some extent that the increase in illnesses in the winter was a myth or an exaggeration. Until I had a child in daycare.
My son was sick all last winter, healthy as could be from March to November and then the past 2 months have been one thing after the next and our pediatrician is basically on speed dial. Some theories for the increased presence of illness in the winter has to do with the cold weather that keeps kids cooped indoors close together, as well as the fact that some viruses thrive in cooler temperatures.
Regardless of why winter is the germiest time of year, it’s something that most toddlers face. While I am not a physician (and this is NOT medical advice and if you need medical advice you should call your child’s pediatrician), I am on my second winter of motherhood and have gotten the pleasure of experiencing all of these winter illnesses and helping my toddler survive them. Hopefully our experience can help others get through this misery and survive until spring comes again.
1. Stomach Flu
What it is: The stomach flu is a bug that causes vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramping, fever and body aches. And it is awful. This year, the stomach flu has been hitting hard, early and often. We had it in November and I’m hoping someday to forget about that experience. An important point of clarification here- the flu shot does NOT protect from the stomach flu because they are totally different viruses, so don’t expect to be vomit free simply because you got the shot.
How to get through it: Keep your pediatrician in the loop and find out what their protocol for hydration is and when you need to seek medical care, but know that there’s no real treatment for the stomach flu, unfortunately. Offer lots of liquids as tolerated, bland foods when able and hold off on milk for a few days afterwards, or go lactose free if your child is a milk addict. Many kids become temporarily lactose intolerant after a stomach bug and the lactose in dairy may prolong the diarrhea. Make sure you sanitize everything because this one is highly contagious. Thankfully, it usually only lasts 24-48 hours.
For more information on the stomach flu, visit the Mayo Clinic’s stomach flu information pages.
What it is: Influenza is a series of several viruses that cause a high fever, body aches, a sore throat, fatigue and a variety of other symptoms. It can be especially dangerous in the very young, old and immunocompromised and can often cause secondary infections including pneumonia. The flu shot protects from several strains and is safe for people over the age of 6 months, so speak to your pediatrician (and your own primary care physician) about getting vaccinated.
How to get through it: See your pediatrician early if you think it’s the flu since there are some medications that can be prescribed to help shorten the duration. Keep your child hydrated and comfortable, keep them away from the public and give them lots of love and sleep. If there is a sore throat, offer cool, soft foods to keep the pain down. You can expect this to run its course over 7-10 miserable days.
For more information on influenza, visit the Mayo Clinic’s influenza information pages.
What it is: Croup is particular kind of cough that is typically the result of a cold. It can also be caused by allergies, reflux or upper respirator inflammation, and some kids will get it repeatedly, while others will never face it. It’s almost always worse at night and causes a very distinctive barking cough that once you hear, you’ll never forget. Some kids will develop stridor which is noisy breathing caused by inflammation in the respiratory tract and which needs medical assessment.
How to get through it: The most tried and true way to manage the cough is to go into a steamy bathroom for 10ish minutes and then either bundle up and go outside and stand in the cool air for a few minutes or stand in front of a freezer. The alternating steamy hot and very cold air helps reduce the inflammation and decrease the coughing. A cool mist humidifier in your child’s room also may help. If your child appears to have any difficulty breathing, seek medical attention immediately. Most kids get past the barky cough within a few days.
For more information on Croup, visit the Mayo Clinic’s croup information pages.
What it is: Roseola is a virus that causes a high fever for several days and then a rash on the torso that emerges after the fever breaks. It is contagious during the fever stage, but the rash itself is not contagious and is typically not bothersome.
How to get through it: After your pediatrician has ruled out all other infectious causes for the fever, get the correct dosing for Motrin or Tylenol and offer at the intervals suggested on the bottle (or by your doctor) to help keep your child comfortable. As with any fever, keep your child well hydrated and as comfortable as possible. Warm baths can also help bring down the fever if it climbs higher than you’re comfortable with. Most adults have already had roseola, so you can snuggle with a little less fear than with some of these other bugs. Once the rash appears, there’s really nothing to be done and it doesn’t bother most kids. The fever can last anywhere from 2-5 days and the rash lasts for a few days after the fever breaks.
For more information on Roseola, visit the Mayo Clinic’s roseola information pages.
5. Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease
What it is: HFM is a vicious virus that causes blisters to form on the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, in the mouth and rarely on the trunk or diaper area. It is usually accompanied by a fever and high levels of misery, which one would expect with sores on the hands and feet and in the mouth. It is definitely contagious and adults can and do get this one too.
How to get through it: Talk to your pediatrician about pain reliever options, offer cool soft foods (smoothies, yogurt, ice cream) and lots of fluids throughout the illness. Many kids will have a poor appetite, so this is not the week to stick to a rigid balanced diet, it’s time to get calories however you can and pick foods that won’t anger the mouth sores. This one usually lasts for about a week from start to finish.
For more information on HFM, visit the Mayo Clinic’s HFM information pages.
6. Strep Throat
What it is: Strep is a throat infection that is caused by a bacteria called streptococcal , and causes an angry, red, sore throat, fever and general ill feeling. If left untreated it can lead to scarlet fever or rheumatic fever, which can have serious consequences. Also, it is highly contagious and requires antibiotics.
How to get through it: Go to your pediatrician for a strep test and antibiotics, and while there, get the proper dosage for pain relievers. Once home, offer cool or room temperature soft foods, lots of liquids and rest. Keep kids away from others to reduce the risk of contagion and keep things quiet because excessive talking or yelling can make the throat pain worse.
For more information on strep throat, visit the Mayo Clinic’s strep throat information pages.
7. Ear Infection
What it is: An ear infection is when bacteria filled fluid fills up the middle part of the ear and causes pain, often a fever and great levels of misery. Sometimes the infections are the result of viruses that come without other symptoms, other times they are secondary infections following a cold or influenza.
How to get through it: See your pediatrician to determine whether antibiotics are necessary (they aren’t always!) and get the proper dosage for OTC pain medications to keep your child comfortable. Some kids have difficulty sleeping while laying flat with an ear infection, so you may need to camp out on the couch and sleep upright until the pain begins to subside. Ear infections themselves are not contagious and when viral will resolve in a few days (with antibiotics they should be much better within 3 days), but often the precipitating virus is contagious, so keep your child home until they’re completely well.
For more information about ear infections, visit the Mayo Clinic’s ear infection information pages.
8. Pink Eye
What it is: Goopy, red, sometimes itchy or painful eyes. They are often crusted shut in the morning and can tear throughout the day. Pink eye often comes with other viral or bacterial infections and there are several different kinds, which you’ll need to see your pediatrician to tease out and get treatment for.
How to get through it: Follow your doctor’s instructions regarding eye drops and contagion. Using warm washcloths and taking baths can help with the crustiness that often follows sleep. Keeping little hands away from eyes can help reduce the irritation and the spread of this particular nastiness. Each type of pink eye will have it’s own period of contagion, so ask your pediatrician when your child can return to daycare, school or interact with other kids safely.
For more information about pink eye, visit the Mayo Clinic’s pink eye information pages.
How do you help your toddler get through the misery of winter illnesses?