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Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.
– World Health Organization

Common Childhood Viruses

by Todd J. Bixby, RPh, MBA
Guyana Journal, September 2009

Viruses are very small particles that invade the body. Like bacteria, they usually spread from person to person by touching, sneezing, and from contact with other body fluids. Both viruses and bacteria can cause fever, cough, runny nose, sore throat, upset stomach, rash, and other related symptoms. Bacteria can be treated with antibiotics, but viruses do not respond to the same medications. While treatment is available for certain viruses, most viral infections have no cure and will simply go away in time. Until they completely go away, symptoms such as fever and headache can be treated to make your child more comfortable and safe. However, caregivers must be aware that any infection can become serious, especially in infants. Therefore, ill children should be monitored closely for signs that the infection is getting worse. This article provides a brief description of some common childhood viral infections.

Bronchitis and Bronchiolitis
Several different viruses can cause bronchitis, which is the swelling of large air passages leading to the lungs. The swelling of smaller passages in the lungs is called bronchiolitis. Both conditions cause coughing, difficulty breathing, and fever, often lasting for 1 week. These conditions occur most often in the fall and winter.

Chickenpox is caused by a virus called varicella-zoster. It is known for its itchy blisters that burst to form crusts. Blisters begin to appear about 2 to 3 days after a fever and last for about a week. It is during the time before blisters appear that Chickenpox can spread among children very easily.

Many different viruses can cause colds. Runny nose, nasal congestion, cough, sore throat, swollen glands, irritability, and loss of appetite can occur. Colds usually last about 1 to 2 weeks, but they can last longer and develop into an ear infection, bronchitis, or a lung infection.

Croup is a common respiratory problem that causes a loud, barking cough in children, which is caused by swelling around the vocal cords. Parainfluenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and adenovirus are the most common viruses that cause croup. Children may also experience difficulty breathing that is noisy when inhaling, and caregivers should monitor for breathing problems. Mild cases last up to 1 week, and children may find relief when exposed to cold or humid air.

Fifth Disease
Fifth disease is marked by a bright-red rash on the cheeks followed by an itchy, raised, red rash on the arms that last for about 5 days. Sometimes the rash can return after several weeks.

Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease
An infection from the Coxsackie virus is called “hand, foot, and mouth disease” because it causes ulcers in the mouth and red blisters on the hands and feet. Children can also experience fever, headache, and a sore throat for 5 to 7 days. Sometimes a child may refuse to drink liquids because of the throat pain, which can lead to dehydration.

Influenza (the Flu)
Influenza type A and type B are common causes of the flu, but other viruses that infect the lungs may also be responsible. Unlike common colds, the flu is marked by high fevers (103-104∞F), aches, and coughing that can make children very tired for up to 10 days. Other complications, such as ear, sinus, and lung infections, may develop. Flu vaccines can help in preventing the flu and are recommended yearly in children from 6 months to 2 years old.

Mononucleosis (“mono”)
Mono is caused by the Epstein-Barr virus and can last for several weeks to several months. Symptoms include extreme tiredness, headache, fever, and a very sore throat that becomes worse over time. Because children may also develop enlarged lymph nodes, liver, and spleen, they must avoid sports or other activities that could cause injury to these organs.

Human herpes virus 6 causes the typical symptoms associated with roseola. Children often experience a very high fever that lasts for about 2-4 days. As the fever drops, a red rash appears for several hours. Caregivers taking care of babies, especially, should seek medical attention if the fever cannot be controlled.

Rotavirus attacks the digestive tract, causing diarrhea, stomach ache, fever, and sometimes vomiting. Symptoms may last for up to 10 days. Although rotavirus is not usually a problem, it can lead to dehydration in more serious cases.

Viral Meningitis
Meningitis is the swelling of the lining surrounding the brain. If caused by a virus, meningitis is usually mild with few complications. However, meningitis caused by bacteria is dangerous and requires immediate treatment with antibiotics to prevent loss of hearing or sight, or brain damage. Symptoms include headache, fever, and stiff neck that may last up to 2 weeks.

Viral Pneumonia
Pneumonia is an infection in the lungs caused by RSV, adenovirus, influenza, and other viruses. Because the lungs become swollen, symptoms include coughing and breathing difficulty, as well as fever, sore throat, headache, and tiredness. Caregivers should listen for rapid breathing, which might be a sign of pneumonia. Although viral pneumonia is usually mild and resolves within 1 to 3 weeks, pneumonia caused by a bacterial infection is often much more serious and should be treated immediately with antibiotics.

If you suspect that your child has any of these common illnesses, or you would like additional information, please contact your pediatrician.

Todd J. Bixby is an Associate Director of Benefit:Risk Initiatives in Horsham, PA.