Category: Childhood Infections

It’s Not Always the Flu When You Get Sick During Cold and Flu Season

We hear a lot about flu season.

It typically starts in late fall, peaks in mid-to-late winter, and can continue through early spring.

Cold and Flu Season Viruses

It’s important to understand that a lot more is going on, and going around, during flu season than just the flu.

That’s why it is likely more appropriate to think of flu season as just a part of the overall cold and flu season that we see during the late fall to early spring.

During cold and flu season, in addition to the multiple strains of the flu, we see diseases caused by:

  • respiratory adenovirus – can cause bronchitis, colds, croup, viral pneumonia, pink eye, and diarrhea
  • Human metapneumovirus (HMPV) – can cause bronchiolitis, colds, and viral pneumonia
  • Human parainfluenza viruses (HPIVs) – can cause bronchiolitis, bronchitis, colds, croup, or viral pneumonia
  • rhinovirus – the classic common cold
  • Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) – can cause wheezing and bronchiolitis in younger children, but colds in older kids and adults
  • seasonal coronavirus – can cause colds, bronchitis, and viral pneumonia
  • norovirus – diarrhea and vomiting
  • rotavirus – diarrhea and vomiting, was much more common in the pre-vaccine era

That there are so many different respiratory viruses that can cause bronchiolitis, colds, croup, and flu-like illnesses helps explain why some kids get sick so many times during cold and flu season.

It also helps explain why some folks think they might have gotten the flu despite having been vaccinated, especially in a year when the flu vaccine is very effective.

Is It a Cold or the Flu?

So how do you know if you have the flu or one of these flu viruses during cold and flu season?

Signs and symptoms of the flu vs a cold.
Signs and symptoms of the flu vs a cold.

While the symptoms can be similar, flu symptoms are usually more severe and come on more suddenly.

Can’t you just get a flu test?

While rapid flu tests are fast and easy to do, they are likely not as accurate as you think.

“This variation in ability to detect viruses can result in some people who are infected with the flu having a negative rapid test result. (This situation is called a false negative test result.) Despite a negative rapid test result, your health care provider may diagnose you with flu based on your symptoms and their clinical judgment.”

CDC on Diagnosing Flu

If your pediatrician is going to diagnose your child with the flu because of their symptoms, even if they have a negative flu test, then why do the test?

Rapid flu tests are usually invalid if they are positive for A and B, but many folks are told that they have both.
Rapid flu tests are usually invalid if they are positive for A and B, but many folks are told that they have both flu virus strains.

Can you test for all of the other viruses that are going around during cold and flu season?

Tests can be done to detect most cold and flu viruses.
Tests can be done to detect most cold and flu viruses.

Sure.

The real question is should you.

Like the rapid flu test, many pediatricians can do an RSV test in their office. But like many other viruses, there is no treatment for RSV and the American Academy of Pediatrics actually recommends against routine RSV testing. Whether your child’s test is positive or negative, it is not going to change how he or she is treated.

And the other viruses? Not surprisingly, there are respiratory panels that can test for most or all of these viruses. They also usually include flu and RSV.

The problem with these tests is cost. They are not inexpensive, and again, in most cases, the results aren’t going to change how your pediatrician treats your child.

And they all involve sticking a nasal swab far up your child’s nose…

What About Strep?

While strep throat can occur year round, it does seem to be more common in the winter and spring.

And while you can certainly have two different infections at the same time, such as strep throat and the flu, it is important to remember that the rate of strep throat carriers is fairly high. These are kids who regularly test positive for strep, even though they don’t have an active group A strep infection.

During cold and flu season, if kids routinely get a “strep/flu” combo test, it is possible, or even likely, that many of the positive strep tests are simply catching these carriers.

Remember that a cough, runny nose, hoarse voice, and pink eye are not typical symptoms of strep throat and are more commonly caused by cold viruses. Adenovirus is especially notorious for causing a sore throat, fever, pink eye, runny nose, with swollen lymph nodes = pharyngoconjunctival fever.

Kids who are likely to have strep throat usually have a sore throat, with red and swollen tonsils, and may have swollen lymph nodes, fever, stomach pain, and vomiting, but won’t have typical cold symptoms.

Why does it matter?

Viral causes of a sore throat don’t need antibiotics, while a true strep infection does.

And remember that none of the other cold and flu viruses need antibiotics either, unless your child gets worse and develops a secondary bacterial infection.

What to Know About Cold and Flu Season Viruses

Flu isn’t the only virus that is going around during cold and flu season. Many others can cause flu-like illnesses, croup, bronchiolitis, or just a cold.

More on Cold and Flu Season Viruses

How Long Are You Contagious When You Have the Flu?

Do your kids have the flu?

When their kids have the flu, one of the first questions most parents have, after all of the ones about how they can get them better as quickly as possible, is how long will they be contagious?

How Long Is the Flu Contagious?

Technically, when you have the flu, you are contagious for about a week after becoming sick.

And you become sick about one to four days after being exposed to someone else with the flu – that’s the incubation period.

“Most experts believe that flu viruses spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby. Less often, a person might also get flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth, eyes or possibly their nose.”

CDC on Information for Schools

That’s why the flu spreads so easily and it is hard to control flu outbreaks and epidemics once they begin.

Most school closures are not to prevent the spread of the flu and clean the school, but simply because so many kids and staff are already out sick.
Most school closures are not to prevent the spread of the flu and clean the school, but simply because so many kids and staff are already out sick.

Another reason it spreads so easily is that most people are contagious the day before they even begin to develop flu symptoms!

And again, they then remain contagious for another five to seven days.

When Can You Return to School with the Flu?

Does that mean kids with the flu have to stay home for at least seven days?

Not usually, unless they have a fever for that long, or severe flu symptoms, which is definitely a possibility for some kids with the flu.

“Those who get flu-like symptoms at school should go home and stay home until at least 24 hours after they no longer have a fever or signs of a fever without the use of fever-reducing medicine.”

CDC on Information for Schools

In general, as with many other childhood illnesses, you can return to school or daycare once your child is feeling better and is fever free for at least 24 hours.

Keep in mind that even if they don’t have a fever, if your child still isn’t feeling well and isn’t going to be able to participate in typical activities, then they should probably still stay home.

But Are They Still Contagious?

Many childhood diseases have contagious periods that are far longer than most folks imagine. That’s because we continue to shed viral particles even as we are getting better, and sometimes, even once we no longer have symptoms.

Teach your kids proper cough etiquette to help keep cold and flu germs from spreading.
Teach your kids proper cough etiquette to help keep cold and flu germs from spreading.

For example, some infants with rotavirus are contagious for up to 10 days and some with RSV are contagious for as long as 4 weeks!

Like the child with flu that doesn’t have a fever, that doesn’t mean that these kids have to stay out of school or daycare for that whole time. But since they are still contagious, it does raise the issue of what to do about non-essential activities.

Should you keep going to playdates after your child had the flu? How about the daycare at church or the gym?

In general, you should probably avoid non-essential activities while your kids are still recovering from an illness, even if they feel better, because they are likely still contagious.

Most parents have the expectation that their own kids won’t be exposed to someone who is sick in these settings.

So you probably don’t want to bring your sick kid to a playdate or birthday party, etc., even if he is already back in school or daycare.

And whether they have a cold or the flu or another illness, teach your kids to decrease their chances of getting sick by washing their hands properly, not sharing drinks (bring a water bottle to school), and properly covering their own coughs and sneezes. They should also learn to avoid putting things in the mouth (fingers or their pencil, etc.) or rubbing their eyes, as that helps germs that could have made their way onto their hands get into their body and make them sick.

What to Know About Staying Home When You Have the Flu

Although your child may be contagious with the flu for up to a week, your child only has to stay home from school or day care until they are feeling better and are fever free for at least 24 hours.

More About Staying Home When You Have the Flu

 

Incubation Periods of Childhood Diseases

The incubation period or latency period is the amount of time between being exposed to a contagious disease and when you begin developing symptoms.

This is not the same as the contagious period or the time during which your child can get others sick.

Incubation Period

Depending on the disease, the incubation period can be just a few hours or can last for several months. Knowing the incubation period for a disease can help you understand if your child is still at risk of getting sick or if he is in the clear — whether he is exposed to someone with strep throat, measles, or the flu.

“The incubation period is the time from exposure to the causative agent until the first symptoms develop and is characteristic for each disease agent.”

CDC

It can also help you figure out where and when your child got sick. For example, if your infant develops chickenpox, a vaccine-preventable disease, you can’t blame it on your cousin who doesn’t vaccinate her kids and who was visiting just three days ago. The incubation period for chickenpox is at least 10 to 21 days. So your child who is too young to be vaccinated likely caught chicken pox from someone he was exposed to a few weeks ago.

As we saw in recent outbreaks of Ebola and measles, a diseases incubation period can also help you figure out how long an exposed person needs to stay in quarantine. After all, if they don’t get sick once the incubation period is over, then they likely won’t get sick and can be released from quarantine.

Incubation Periods of Childhood Diseases

The incubation period for some common diseases includes:

  • Adenovirus – 2 to 14 days, leading to a sore throat, fever, and pink eye
  • vomiting after exposure to Bacillus cereus, a type of food poisoning – 30 minutes to 6 hours (short incubation period
  • Clostridium tetani (Tetanus) – 3 to 21 days
  • Chickenpox – 10 to 21 days
  • Epstein-Barr Virus Infections (Infectious Mononucleosis) – 30 to 50 days (long incubation period)
  • E. coli – 10 hours to 6 days (short incubation period)
  • E. coli O157:H7 – 1 to 8 days
  • Fifth disease – 4 to 21 days, with the classic ‘slapped cheek’ rash
  • Group A streptococcal (GAS) infection (strep throat) – 2 to 5 days
  • Group A streptococcal (GAS) infection (impetigo) – 7 to 10 days
  • Head lice (time for eggs to hatch) – 7 to 12 days
  • Herpes (cold sores) – 2 to 14 days
  • HIV – less than 1 year to over 15 years
  • Influenza (flu) – 1 to 4 days
  • Listeria monocytogenes (Listeriosis) – 1 day to 3 weeks, but can be as long as 2 months (long incubation period)
  • Measles – 7 to 18 days
  • Molluscum contagiosum – 2 weeks to 6 months (long incubation period)
  • Mycobacterium tuberculosis (TB) – 2 to 10 weeks (long incubation period)
  • Mycoplasma penumoniae (walking pneumonia) – 1 to 4 weeks
  • Norovirus ( the ‘cruise ship’ diarrhea virus) – 12 to 48 hours
  • Pinworms – 1 to 2 months
  • Rabies – 4 to 6 weeks, but can last years (very long incubation period)
  • Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) – 2 to 8 days
  • Rhinovirus (common cold) – 2 to 3 days, but may be up to 7 days
  • Roseola – about 9 to 10 days, leading to a few days of fever and then the classic rash once the fever breaks
  • Rotavirus – 1 to 3 days
  • gastrointestinal symptoms (diarrhea and vomiting) after exposure to Salmonella – 6 to 72 hours
  • Scabies – 4 to 6 weeks
  • Staphylococcus aureus – varies
  • Streptococcus pneumoniae (can cause pneumonia, meningitis, ear infections, and sinus infection, setc.) – 1 to 3 days
  • Whooping cough (pertussis) – 5 to 21 days

Knowing the incubation period of an illness isn’t always as helpful as it seems, though, as kids often have multiple exposures when kids around them are sick, especially if they are in school or daycare.

Conditions with long incubation periods can also fool you, as you might suspect a recent exposure, but it was really someone your child was around months ago.

More About Incubation Periods

Understanding Strep and Why Your Kids Keep Getting Strep Throat

Tonsillitis caused by group A streptococcus bacteria.
Tonsillitis caused by group A streptococcus bacteria. Photo courtesy of the CDC.

Does your child get strep throat so often that you are thinking about getting his tonsils out?

While it is not uncommon for kids to get strep throat a few times a year once they are in school, it is even more common to get viral sore throats.

Strep throat, which can be treated with antibiotics, is caused by the group A Streptococcus (GAS) bacteria. And while a fast or rapid test can help determine if your child has strep throat or a virus, false positive (the test is positive, but the strep bacteria isn’t really making your child sick) results can sometimes confuse the picture.

Understanding Strep Throat

Before you can begin to understand why your child might be getting strep throat over and over again, you first have to understand strep throat and the current guidelines for diagnosing and treating strep.

“Diagnostic studies for GAS pharyngitis are not indicated for children less than 3 years old because acute rheumatic fever is rare in children less than 3 years old and the incidence of streptococcal pharyngitis and the classic presentation of streptococcal pharyngitis are uncommon in this age group.”

Infectious Diseases Society of America Guidelines

Strep throat is most common in children and teens between the ages of 5 and 15 years. While it might be possible for younger and older folks to get strep, especially if someone else in the house is sick with strep throat, since they aren’t considered to be at risk for acute rheumatic fever, it isn’t typically necessary to diagnose or treat them. It may surprise you, but strep throat does go away on its own – the main reason it is treated is so you don’t later develop rheumatic fever.

“Testing for GAS pharyngitis usually is not recommended for children or adults with acute pharyngitis with clinical and epidemiological features that strongly suggest a viral etiology (eg, cough, rhinorrhea, hoarseness, and oral ulcers).”

Infectious Diseases Society of America Guidelines

The classic symptoms of strep throat can include the sudden onset of a sore throat, fever, red and swollen tonsils (tonsillitis), possibly with white patches (exudate) and small, red spots (petechiae) on the roof of the child’s mouth, and tender, swollen lymph glands in their neck.

Kids with strep throat might also have nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, a headache, and a rash (scarlet fever).

Kids with strep throat will not usually have a cough, runny nose, hoarse voice, mouth ulcers, or pink eye with their sore throat. Those are symptoms that suggest a virus is causing the sore throat and they should not usually be tested for strep. This helps to avoid an unnecessary antibiotic prescription if your child tests positive, but really has a virus.

So basically, try to avoid over-testing for strep. But if your child does have strep throat symptoms and has a positive test, get an antibiotic that will clear the strep bacteria and finish all of your child’s prescription.

Avoiding Strep and Other Infections

Can you avoid getting strep?

As with other infections, the best way to avoid strep throat is to teach your kids to:

  • wash their hands properly
  • avoid close contact with people that are sick (for strep, that means until they have been on their antibiotic for at least 24 hours)
  • avoid drinking out of other people’s cups or glasses
  • consider taking a water bottle to school instead of drinking out of the water fountains
  • not touch their eyes or put objects (fingers, pencils, clothing, etc.) in their mouth, as that helps germs get in their body
  • cover their coughs and sneezes to avoid getting others sick

Most importantly, don’t wait until someone is sick in your home or lots of kids are getting sick at school to encourage your kids to avoid getting sick. By then, it will likely be too late.

Is Your Child a Strep Carrier?

If your child continues to get strep, especially if their strep test is always positive, it is likely time to consider that they may be a strep carrier.

“We recommend that clinicians caring for patients with recurrent episodes of pharyngitis associated with laboratory evidence of GAS pharyngitis consider that they may be experiencing >1 episode of bona fide streptococcal pharyngitis at close intervals, but they should also be alert to the possibility that the patient may actually be a chronic pharyngeal GAS carrier who is experiencing repeated viral infections.”

Infectious Diseases Society of America Guidelines

What does it mean to be a strep carrier?

It simply means that the strep bacteria are living or ‘hanging out’ in the back of your child’s throat. While that sounds bad, these strep bacteria aren’t causing any problems. They aren’t making your child sick, causing any symptoms, and don’t even make your child contagious.

“…the recovery of GAS does not establish causality. The tests do not distinguish carriage of GAS in a child with pharyngitis attributable to another cause from an acute infection caused by GAS.”

“Group A Streptococci Among School-Aged Children: Clinical Characteristics and the Carrier State” Pediatrics. 2004 Nov;114(5):1212-9.

The big problem with being a strep carrier is that whenever you have a strep test, these strep carrier bacteria will make the test positive, even if they aren’t what is causing your child’s symptoms.

This is often why people get diagnosed with strep and flu or strep and mono at the same time.

If you still don’t understand strep carriers, consider that if you go to almost any school and test every child, up to 20 to 25% of the kids will test positive for strep, even though they aren’t sick and have no symptoms. They are likely just strep carriers.

“We recommend that GAS carriers do not ordinarily justify efforts to identify them nor do they generally require antimicrobial therapy because GAS carriers are unlikely to spread GAS pharyngitis to their close contacts and are at little or no risk for developing suppurative or nonsuppurative complications (eg, acute rheumatic fever).”

Infectious Diseases Society of America Guidelines

What kind of efforts are they talking about? We sometimes hear about doctors ordering antibody tests, doing rapid strep tests and cultures on kids after they finish their antibiotics, testing everyone who lives in the house, or even testing the family dog.

None of this is usually necessary.

One thing that can be helpful is that if your pediatrician thinks that your child is a strep carrier, then instead of the more typical penicillin or amoxil antibiotics, they might treat your child with a stronger antibiotic, like clindamycin. This can help ‘knock out’ the carrier bacteria.

And then learn to be much more selective about getting strep tests, avoiding them if your child has more classic viral symptoms, like a cough and runny nose.

In addition to the idea of being a chronic carrier, there are other theories about why kids get recurrent strep throat infections, including:

  • antibiotic resistance – although this is thought to be rare or non-existent when it comes to the GAS bacteria and penicillin, amoxicillin, and cephalosporins. There is some resistance between azithromycin and strep, which is why it should only be prescribed if your child is allergic to the other antibiotics that are used to treat strep throat.
  • noncompliance – not finishing your antibiotic or not taking it as prescribed
  • influence of other bacteria – there are theories that other bacteria may be inactivating penicillin or amoxicillin (so you need a stronger antibiotic) or even that other beneficial bacteria help to kill the GAS bacteria, but may be gone if your child is frequently on antibiotics
  • you are starting antibiotics too quickly – some people think that if you don’t wait a few days and let the body start to fight the strep infection on its own, then it is more likely to come back

Or if your child had true strep throat symptoms, got well quickly after being on an antibiotic, but then got strep (with classic strep symptoms) again quickly, it is possible that it is just a new infection.

“We do not recommend tonsillectomy solely to reduce the frequency of GAS pharyngitis.”

Infectious Diseases Society of America Guidelines

If it is happening over and over again, consider the possibility that your child is a strep carrier and teach him or her how to avoid getting sick as much as possible.

Why not just get your child’s tonsils out? The problem is that many studies have shown that while this might help for a year or so, after that, these kids start getting strep just as much as they did before. So unless your child also has sleep apnea or has had complications of strep infections, like a peritonsillar abscess, you probably shouldn’t rush into a tonsillectomy.

What To Know About Recurrent Strep Throat Infections

Some other fast facts to know include that:

  • having tonsillitis does not automatically mean that your child has strep. Remember that viruses are an even more common cause of sore throats.
  • you can’t tell if someone has strep just by looking at their tonsils. Even having pus (white stuff) on their tonsils doesn’t automatically mean strep. Viruses can do that too. That’s why a rapid strep test, with a backup culture for negative tests, is important to make the diagnosis.
  • throwing out your child’s tooth brush every time they have strep isn’t necessary, after all, you don’t do that after they have other infections, do you? Instead, encourage your kids to routinely rinse their toothbrush after each use and replace it every 3 to 4 months.

Hopefully you have a better understanding of strep throat now.

Sore throat infections, including strep throat, are common, but remember to look for other answers besides just getting your child’s tonsils out if they get strep over and over.

More Information About Strep Throat

Treating the Flu and Hard to Control Flu Symptoms

It is much easier to prevent the flu with a flu shot than to try and treat the flu after you get sick.
It is much easier to prevent the flu with a flu shot than to try and treat the flu after you get sick.

Unfortunately, like most upper respiratory tract infections, the flu is not easy to treat.

What are Flu Symptoms?

While a cold and the flu can have similar symptoms, those symptoms are generally more intense and come on more quickly when you have the flu.

These flu symptoms can include the sudden onset of:

  • fever and chills
  • dry cough
  • chest discomfort
  • runny nose or stuffy nose
  • sore throat
  • headache
  • body aches
  • feelings of fatigue

And more rarely, vomiting and diarrhea.

In contrast, cold symptoms come on more gradually and are more likely to include sneezing, stuffy nose, sore throat, and mild to moderate coughing. A cold is also less likely to include a headache, fatigue, chills, or aches. And while either might have fever, it will be more low grade with a cold.

As with other infections, flu symptoms can be very variable. While some people might have a high fever, chills, body aches, constant coughing, and can hardly get out of bed, others might have a low grade fever and much milder symptoms.

That variability also applies to how long the flu symptoms might last. Some people are sick for a good 7 to 10 days, while others start to feel better in just a few days.

Treating Flu Symptoms

Although there aren’t many good treatments for the flu, that variability in flu symptoms makes it hard to even know if any you try really work.

For kids older than 4 to 6 years and adults, you could treat symptoms as necessary, including the use of decongestants and cough suppressants.

And of course, almost everyone might benefit from pain and fever relievers, drinking extra fluids, and rest, etc.

Treating the Flu

In addition to symptomatic flu treatments, there are also antiviral drugs that can actually help treat your flu infection.

These flu medications include oseltamivir (Tamiflu), zanmivir (Relenza), and peramivir (Rapivab). Of these, oral Tamiflu is the most commonly used. It can also be used to prevent the flu if taken before or soon after you are exposed to someone with the flu.

“If liquid Tamiflu is not available and you have capsules that give the right dose (30 mg, 45 mg or 75 mg), you may pull open the Tamiflu capsules and mix the powder with a small amount of sweetened liquid such as regular or sugar-free chocolate syrup. You don’t have to use chocolate syrup but thick, sweet liquids work best at covering up the taste of the medicine.”

FDA – Tamiflu: Consumer Questions and Answers

Unfortunately, these flu drugs are not like antibiotics you might take for a bacterial infection. You don’t take Tamiflu and begin to feel better in day or two. Instead, if you take it within 48 hours of the start of your flu symptoms, you might “shorten the duration of fever and illness symptoms, and may reduce the risk of complications from influenza.”

At best, you are likely only going to shorten your flu symptoms by less than a day. And considering the possible side effects of these medications and their cost, they are often reserved for high risk patients, including:

  • children who are less than 2 years old
  • adults who are at least 65 years old or older
  • anyone with chronic medical problems, including asthma, diabetes, seizures, muscular dystrophy, morbid obesity, immune system problems, and those receiving long-term aspirin therapy, etc.
  • pregnant and postpartum women
  • anyone who is hospitalized with the flu
  • anyone with severe flu symptoms

That means that most older children and teens who are otherwise healthy, but have the flu, don’t typically need a prescription for Tamiflu. The current recommendations don’t rule out treating these kids though.

“Antiviral treatment also can be considered for any previously healthy, symptomatic outpatient not at high risk with confirmed or suspected influenza on the basis of clinical judgment, if treatment can be initiated within 48 hours of illness onset.”

Antiviral Agents for the Treatment and Chemoprophylaxis of Influenza – Recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP)

There is a lot of controversy surrounding the use of Tamiflu and other anti-viral flu medications, with some studies and many experts thinking that they should rarely be used, if ever, stating that they are not as useful as others claim. Others state that while they not perfect, they are all we have, and there is enough evidence to recommend their use.

Treating Hard to Control Flu Symptoms

Instead of learning about treating hard to control flu symptoms, which might require medical attention, it is probably much more important to learn how to recognize these severe flu symptoms that might be hard to control.

Your child’s flu might be getting worse and require quick medical attention if you notice:

  • fast or hard breathing
  • complaints of chest pain
  • that it is hard to wake up your child
  • irritability to the point that your child is not consolable
  • signs of dehydration because your child won’t drink any fluids
  • that your child is complaining of being dizzy or is feeling lightheaded

You might also need to seek medical attention if your child with the flu was getting better, but then worsens again, with the return of a fever and more severe coughing, etc.

What to Know About Treating the Flu and Flu Symptoms

In addition to basic symptomatic care for your child’s flu symptoms, including the fever, cough, and runny nose, etc., Tamiflu can be an option to treat high risk kids with the flu.

And remember that it is recommended that everyone who is at least six months old should get a yearly flu vaccine.

More Information on Treating Hard to Control Flu Symptoms

Treating Hard to Control RSV

With a cough, wheezing, and trouble breathing that can linger for weeks, all RSV infections probably seem like they are hard to control, especially since up to 2% of kids, mostly high-risk infants, with RSV require hospitalization.

Still, it’s important to remember that for many kids, RSV is just a cold.

Understanding RSV

Since there is no cure or treatment, it is best to learn to protect your kids from RSV.
Since there is no cure or treatment, it is best to learn to protect your kids from RSV.

The first thing to understand about RSV is that it isn’t a disease.

Instead, RSV, or the respiratory syncytial virus, can cause many different kinds of upper and lower respiratory infections, ranging from the common cold and croup to bronchiolitis and viral pneumonia.

And almost all kids get sick with RSV at some point during the first few years of their life, especially if they are in daycare.

Fortunately, although RSV can cause life-threatening infections, especially in high-risk infants, the great majority of  children get over their symptoms without any special treatments.

And infants who are the most high risk, including premature babies who were born at less than 29 weeks, can get five monthly doses of palivizumab (Synagis) during RSV reason to reduce their chances of getting sick. Infants with hemodynamically significant heart disease or chronic lung disease of prematurity can also get palivizumab.

Treating RSV

Many of the classic treatments for RSV have now fallen out of favor with pediatricians. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatricians now advises against using albuterol breathing treatments, epinephrine, steroids, or chest physiotherapy (CPT) for infants with RSV bronchiolitis.

What’s left?

Not much, except pushing your child to drink and treating cold symptoms as possible.

The AAP even advises against routinely testing kids for RSV. That makes sense, since there is no treatment, kids can sometimes be contagious for 3 to 4 weeks, long after they have returned to daycare without symptoms, and other viruses can cause similar symptoms.

Instead, if your child has symptoms of RSV, especially if she was around someone else with RSV symptoms about two to eight days ago or is simply in daycare during RSV season (usually November to April), then it is safe to assume that your child has RSV.

Also understand that antibiotics have no role in the treatment of uncomplicated RSV infections. RSV is a virus. Antibiotics do not work against viral infections.

Going to Day Care with RSV

Since many kids who get RSV are in day care, the million dollar question often becomes, when can my child with RSV go back to day care?

“Most minor illnesses do not constitute a reason for excluding a child from child care, unless the illness prevents the child from participating in normal activities, as determined by the child care staff, or the illness requires a need for care that is greater than staff can provide.”

AAP Red Book 2015

Although I once had the manager of a day care argue with me that a child needed to test RSV negative before being allowed back into her day care, kids can usually go back, even if they still have cold symptoms, as long as they:

  • don’t have a fever for 24 hours
  • don’t have any trouble breathing
  • are not fussy or irritable

Since these kids will likely be contagious, the AAP recommends that “In child care centers, good hygiene practices should be used by the staff and the children, including frequent and thorough hand washing.”

Treating Hard to Control RSV

If your child has RSV symptoms and isn’t getting better, ask yourself these questions and bring the answers to your pediatrician or seek quick medical attention:

“Some youngsters with bronchiolitis may have to be hospitalized for treatment with oxygen. If your child is unable to drink because of rapid breathing, he may need to receive intravenous fluids.”

American Academy of Pediatrics

  • Do you think your child’s symptoms are hard to control, not because they are getting worse, but rather because they are lingering for several weeks, which can be normal when young kids have RSV?
  • Does your newborn or infant under two or three months have a fever (temperature at or above 100.4F/38C)?
  • Is your child having trouble breathing, such as breathing fast or hard, with chest retractions (chest caving in), nasal flaring, trouble catching his breath, or a non-stop, continuous cough?
  • Do you see any signs that your child isn’t getting enough oxygen, including that “his fingertips and the area around his lips may turn a bluish color?”
  • Is your child dehydrated, with less urine output, dry mouth, or no tears?
  • Does your child have any medical problems that put her at higher risk for a severe RSV infection, including extreme prematurity, having complex heart disease, chronic lung disease of prematurity, or immune system problems?
  • Is your child lethargic, which doesn’t simply mean that he is just playing less, but rather that he is actually hard to wake up and is maybe skipping feedings?

If your child with RSV is getting worse, although there aren’t any special treatments to make the RSV infection go away, supportive care is available to help your child through it, including IV fluids and supplemental oxygen. Those who are most sick sometimes end up on a ventilator to help them breath, and tragically, some infants with RSV die.

What To Know About Treating Hard to Control RSV

RSV is never really easy to control for infants and toddlers, as there is no treatment or cure, but fortunately, most kids do not have severe symptoms that require hospitalizations.

More Information About Treating Hard to Control RSV

Save

What to Know About Fifth Disease

Fifth disease, also called erythema infectiosum, is a very common viral infection that most kids get in early childhood.

It got its name because it was the fifth disease that was known to cause a fever and rash.

Measles was the first.

Symptoms of Fifth Disease

Fifth disease can cause a child to look like they have slapped cheeks.
Fifth disease can cause a child to look like they have slapped cheeks. Photo by Dr. Philip S. Brachman

It is caused by parvovirus B19.

Symptoms start with a red rash on your child’s cheek, giving them the appearance that they have been slapped. And that’s where fifth disease’s other name comes from – slapped cheek disease.

This slapped cheek rash is often subtle, so that many parents might think that the rash is from the sun or wind. They often don’t even consider that their child might be ‘sick’ until a few days later, when they get a pink, lacy rash on their arms and legs. Even then, they might mistake the rash for hives, poison ivy, or any number of other common childhood rashes.

Diagnosis of Fifth Disease

Unless you understand that the fifth rash can come and go, being more obvious when your child is overheated, it can be easy to see why it isn’t quickly recognized by some people. It can also be confusing because the rash could also appear on a child’s back, chest, and leg – it doesn’t have to be limited to the cheeks and arms.

And the rash, which can be itchy, can linger for weeks or even months.

While a blood test can be done, it is this pattern of symptoms that makes the diagnosis.

Most importantly, understand that fifth disease eventually does goes away without treatment. While not usually necessary, anti-itch treatments may be tried.

Can your kids go to school with fifth disease?

Fortunately, kids are not contagious while they have this rash, so they can go to school and participate in other activities. You might need a note from your pediatrician to convince folks though. They were contagious during the week before they developed the rash though, so it can be a good idea to tell people, so they can look for symptoms too.

Facts About Fifth Disease

Other things to know about fifth disease include that:

  • Fifth disease is caused by the parvovirus B19 virus and is most common during the spring and school outbreaks are no uncommon.
  • The incubation period for fifth disease is very long – up to 4 to 21 days. That means you can get this virus about 4 to 21 days after being exposed to someone else that had it, especially if you were exposed to their respiratory secretions (coughing and sneezing) just before they developed their rash.
  • Prodromal symptoms of fifth disease, which can start 7 to 10 days before the rash, might include a few days of mild fever, muscle aches, headache and decreased activity.
  • In addition to a rash, adults with fifth disease can also have joint pain and arthritis.

It is also important to know that like roseola, fifth disease can be more serious for those with immune system problems. It can also be serious for pregnant women who aren’t immune and for those with hemolytic anemia and sickle cell disease.

What to Know About Fifth Disease

Fifth disease is a very common viral infection that causes a characteristic rash on a child’s cheeks, arms, and legs that can linger for weeks.

More Information About Fifth Disease