Flu, pink eye, strep throat: A guide to the common illnesses making your kid sick

A collage of photos of a girl holding a tissue and coughing into her arm, a thermometer, a box of tissues and a view of cells under a microscope.
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images)

It’s practically inevitable: Kids get sick and pretty often too. As a result, parents are regularly left debating whether the latest illness is one they can handle at home or one that requires help from a pediatrician.

Because kids tend to pick up a lot of illnesses — from school, day care, playdates or just being out and about — it’s a good idea for parents to at least have a baseline knowledge about some of the more common sicknesses a child is likely to face, Dr. Danelle Fisher, chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life. “It’s important to know what to take seriously and what you can just watch,” she says.

Dr. Naline Lai, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, agrees. “All parents need to be aware of red flags for symptoms so that they understand what’s considered unusual and needs to be looked at urgently,” she tells Yahoo Life.

Knowing some basics can also help parents feel more in control, adds Dr. Ashanti Woods, a pediatrician at Mercy Medical Care in Baltimore. “That knowledge can often reduce anxiety that parents could potentially develop when their child comes home from day care or school with a cold vs. strep throat, or returns from a camping trip with mosquito bites vs. poison ivy,” he says. “This reduced anxiety can potentially save a late night trip to the emergency room.”

With that in mind, pediatricians say these are the most common childhood illnesses parents should be aware of.


Also known as influenza, this condition causes hospitalizations and even deaths in kids each year.

How is it transmitted?

The flu is spread from person to person, mainly by droplets made when people who have it cough, sneeze or talk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby, or be inhaled. It’s also possible to get the flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes, the CDC says, but this is less common.

What are symptoms?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), symptoms of the flu can include:

  • A sudden fever

  • Chills

  • Headache, body aches and fatigue

  • Sore throat

  • Dry, hacking cough

  • Stuffy, runny nose

Some kids with the flu may also throw up or have diarrhea, the AAP says. “The flu sucks,” Fisher says. “It will make kids feel sick and generally really yucky.”

How is it treated?

Kids with the flu usually recover with extra rest and plenty of fluids, the AAP says. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help them feel better if they have a fever, Fisher says. Antiviral medicine like Tamiflu may also be helpful, according to the AAP, but it’s most effective when started within the first one to two days of your child having symptoms.


As of mid-May, nearly 15.6 million children were reported to have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to AAP data.

How is it transmitted?

COVID-19 spreads when an infected person breathes out droplets and particles that contain the virus, the CDC says. Those droplets and particles can be breathed in by other people or land in their eyes, nose or mouth. It’s not as common, but the CDC says it’s possible to get COVID-19 from touching an infected surface and then touching your nose, mouth or eyes.

What are symptoms?

Symptoms can include, per the CDC:

  • Fever or chills

  • Cough

  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing

  • Fatigue

  • Muscle or body aches

  • Headache

  • New loss of taste or smell

  • Sore throat

  • Congestion or runny nose

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Diarrhea

How is it treated?

Kids usually get better with rest and fluids and by taking fever-reducing medicine like acetaminophen or ibuprofen, Nemours says, also noting that children who are at higher risk for severe complications of the virus may benefit from antiviral drugs to prevent severe illness.


RSV season usually starts in the fall and peaks in the winter. An estimated 58,000 to 80,000 children under age 5 are hospitalized in the U.S. each year due to this respiratory infection.

How is it transmitted?

RSV spreads when an infected person coughs or sneezes and you get the virus droplets in your eyes, nose or mouth, or when you have direct contact with the virus or you touch a surface with the virus on it and then touch your face before washing your hands, the CDC says.

What are symptoms?

The AAP says RSV usually causes cold-like symptoms in kids, including:

  • Fever

  • Cough

  • Congestion

  • Runny nose

  • Sneezing

  • Fussiness

  • Poor feeding

Children with RSV may develop a complication called bronchiolitis, which can cause these symptoms:

  • Fast breathing

  • Flaring of the nostrils and head bobbing with breathing

  • Rhythmic grunting during breathing

  • Belly breathing, tugging between the ribs and/or the lower neck

  • Wheezing

How is it treated?

Treatment usually involves taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen to manage the fever and pain, along with drinking enough fluids to prevent dehydration, the CDC says.


Also known as pink eye, conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the whites of the eyes (conjunctiva) from infection or allergies, the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) says.

How is it transmitted?

Pink eye is highly contagious and can be spread from direct contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids, usually through hand-to-eye contact and spread of bacteria that’s already living in a person’s own nose and sinuses, the AAO says.

What are symptoms?

The AAO says symptoms can include:

  • A feeling that something is in your eye

  • Red eyes

  • Burning eyes

  • Itchy eyes

  • Painful eyes

  • Watery eyes

  • Puffy eyelids

  • Blurry or hazy vision

  • Sensitivity to light

  • Mucus, pus or thick yellow discharge from the eye

How is it treated?

The proper treatment depends on what’s causing the infection, Woods says. “Pink eye, often caused by bacteria but occasionally caused by viruses and/or seasonal allergies, may need treatment with an antibiotic, lubricant or antihistamine drops,” he says.

Hand, foot and mouth disease

Also known as HFMD, this disease is very contagious and most common in children under the age of 5, the CDC says.

How is it transmitted?

HFMD spreads through person-to-person contact, droplets made when a person who is sick with HFMD sneezes, coughs or talks, or contact with contaminated surfaces and objects, per the CDC.

What are symptoms?

According to the AAP, symptoms usually start with a fever, sore throat and runny nose, followed by blisters that commonly show up in these areas:

  • In the mouth

    • On the inner cheeks

    • Gums

    • Sides of the tongue

    • Top of the mouth

  • Fingers

  • Palms of hands

  • Soles of feet

  • Butt

How is it treated?

There is no specific treatment for hand, foot and mouth disease, Fisher says. However, giving kids acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help manage their fever and pain, she says. The AAP also recommends encouraging children to drink plenty of fluids.

Strep throat

This is the most common type of group A strep infection, and it can be incredibly contagious, the AAP says.

How is it transmitted?

Strep throat is usually passed on via respiratory droplets that infected people spread when they talk, cough or sneeze, the CDC says. People can get infected if they breathe in respiratory droplets that contain the bacteria, touch something with those droplets on it and then touch their mouth or nose, or drink from the same glass or eat from the same plate as an infected person, according to the CDC.

What are symptoms?

Strep throat symptoms can include:

  • Fever

  • Pain when swallowing

  • Sore throat that starts quickly and may look red

  • Red and swollen tonsils

  • White patches or streaks of pus on the tonsils

  • Tiny red spots on the roof of the mouth

  • Swollen lymph nodes in the front of the neck

Fisher says a good way to differentiate strep throat from a cold, COVID or the flu is that “it does not include symptoms like a cough or runny nose.”

How is it treated?

Strep throat is a call-your-pediatrician kind of illness, Woods says. “It needs antibiotics for treatment,” he says.

Common cold

The common cold usually causes a respiratory infection and nasal congestion, Fisher says.

How is it transmitted?

Rhinoviruses, which are the most frequent cause of the common cold, are spread through respiratory droplets that are released when an infected person coughs or sneezes, the CDC says. The droplets can enter another person’s body if they breathe them in or if they touch a surface contaminated with the virus and then touch their eyes, nose or mouth. A cold can also be spread through close personal contact with an infected person.

What are symptoms?

Symptoms may include the following, per the CDC:

  • Cough

  • Sneeze

  • Runny nose

  • Nasal congestion

  • Sore throat

  • Headache

  • Body aches

  • Fever

How is it treated?

Colds are usually treated with supportive care, Fisher says. That may include using nasal drops and a humidifier to help with congestion, cough drops (in older children), and acetaminophen or ibuprofen to help with fever and other discomfort, the AAP says.

Ear infection

Ear infections are common in children: Data shows that 5 out of 6 kids will have at least one ear infection by their third birthday.

How is it transmitted?

Ear infections often happen when a child has another illness, like a cold, Fisher says. Kids are also more prone to ear infections given their ear anatomy, she says. In children, the eustachian tubes that connect the nose and throat to the middle ear are smaller and flatter than those of adults, allowing bacteria and viruses to get in more easily, she explains.

What are symptoms?

According to Fisher, symptoms may include:

  • Irritability

  • Poor sleep

  • Decreased appetite

  • Fever

Children may also pull on their ears or stick their fingers in their ears if they have an infection, she says.

How is it treated?

Most ear infections are treated with antibiotics, Woods says. However, Fisher notes, parents may also want to help treat their child’s pain with medications like acetaminophen and ibuprofen.


Gastroenteritis is an inflammation of the stomach and small and large intestines, the CDC says.

How is it transmitted?

Gastroenteritis can spread when an infected person touches objects, including toys and doorknobs, the CDC says. Some infections that cause gastroenteritis can be spread through contaminated food or water.

What are symptoms?

Symptoms of gastroenteritis generally include vomiting and/or diarrhea, Fisher says.

How is it treated?

Gastroenteritis can be caused by a virus, bacteria or a parasite, but in kids, it’s usually viral, Fisher says. As a result, antibiotics won’t help. “Hydrate your child — give them a little bit of fluids, wait and then give them some more,” Lai says.


Bronchitis is an inflammation of the large breathing tubes (called bronchi) in the lungs, according to Stanford Medicine Children’s Health.

How is it transmitted?

You can get the viruses and bacteria that cause bronchitis from close contact, like shaking hands, hugging and touching the same surfaces as someone who has the illness, the Cleveland Clinic says. Bronchitis itself isn’t contagious, but the viruses and bacteria that cause it are, the health organization notes.

What are symptoms?

According to Cedars-Sinai, symptoms of bronchitis in kids can include:

  • Dry or mucus-filled cough

  • Vomiting or gagging

  • Runny nose

  • Chest congestion or pain

  • An overall body discomfort or not feeling well

  • Chills

  • Slight fever

  • Back and muscle pain

  • Wheezing

  • Sore throat

How is it treated?

Bronchitis in kids is usually caused by viruses — not bacteria. As a result, it typically isn’t treated with antibiotics. Instead, kids should get plenty of rest, hydrate well and take acetaminophen or ibuprofen for fever and mild pain, the organization says. You may also consider using a cool-mist humidifier in your child's room, Cedars-Sinai says.

If your child is sick and you’re not sure what to do, Fisher says, it’s important to call your pediatrician for guidance on next steps, adding, “It’s what we’re there for.”