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Runny noses. Sore throats. Stomachaches. All are ubiquitous in households with children, and in fact, more than three out of four U.S. kids miss at least one day of school a year because they’re sick, according to the Agency for Health Care Research and Quality.
But while many of the above are contagious, they usually resolve without much fanfare if they’re given proper treatment, says Laura Jana, M.D., a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and associate research professor at Penn State Prevention Research Center.
Here, a look at four common kids’ health issues and how to treat them right.
The common cold is the most common illness for both kids and adults, causing U.S. children to miss about 22 million school days a year. And since youngsters under the age of 6 average six to eight colds per year (roughly one a month from September to April), that means a lot of time spent sneezing and snuffling.
Treatment tips: If a cold is affecting your kid’s health, symptoms should ease somewhat within two to three days (though some can linger for up to two weeks).
In the interim, you can relieve your child’s discomfort with acetaminophen (Tylenol and generic) or ibuprofen (Advil and generic). A teaspoon of honey may help curb a cough (but don’t give this to babies less than a year old; honey can cause infant botulism in very young children). Some rest and fluids—including chicken soup—can also soothe your sick kid.
Skip over-the-counter cough and cold medicines—research shows they aren’t very effective, and in children under age 6 can have potentially serious side effects, such as increased heart rate and breathing difficulties. Some children may also experience an allergic reaction to such products.
And though you might be tempted to ask your pediatrician for antibiotics, don’t. Antibiotics can be useful for bacterial infections, such as strep throat, but are ineffective against a virus.
Despite this, about 30 percent of antibiotics prescribed to both children and adults are unnecessary, according to a study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association. “If your child takes antibiotics and doesn’t need them, they can upset her stomach and breed future antibiotic resistance,” Jana explains. Antibiotics can also have significant side effects.
Up to 30 percent of kids who have a sore throat during the winter actually have strep throat, a condition caused by the bacteria Group A streptococcus (GAS). It usually occurs during the winter and early spring and is most common in children over age 3.
Symptoms include a fever over 100.4° F, severe sore throat, headache, swollen neck glands, and sometimes, nausea and vomiting. If your child has a mild sore throat and coldlike symptoms, such as a stuffy or runny nose and coughing, it’s most likely a virus, Jana notes.
Treatment tips: If you suspect strep, the pediatrician can swab your child’s throat, do a rapid strep test, and get results within 5 minutes. For your kid’s health, treatment is with an antibiotic such as penicillin.
If your child gets a first dose by 5 p.m., he’s unlikely to be contagious by the next morning, but most schools require that youngsters with strep be on antibiotics for a full 24 hours before returning.
And there’s no need to toss out his toothbrush, despite the old wives’ tale that cites the need for a new one after strep. Most kids are on antibiotics for seven to 10 days, and the GAS bacteria don’t survive that long.
Diarrhea and Vomiting
More than 1.5 million kids see doctors every year for acute gastroenteritis, diarrhea that may or may not be accompanied by fever, stomach pain, nausea, and vomiting. Up to 90 percent of cases are due to viruses, and most subside on their own in a day or two. But in the interim, they can make your youngster mighty uncomfortable.
Treatment tips: It’s important to help keep children who are vomiting or have diarrhea hydrated. But if your child has just thrown up, wait a bit before giving her fluid. “What a lot of parents don’t realize is that vomiting is a reflex that needs an hour or two to settle down,” Jana says.
Once your child’s tummy has rested, encourage her to sip small amounts of water throughout the day. She may not be able to drink a lot at a time. You can also offer a commercially prepared oral rehydration solution such as Pedialyte.
Skip sports drinks, such as Gatorade and Powerade, which may be tougher on tummies—and have a high sugar content. And contrary to what you may have heard all your life, kids with gastroenteritis don’t need to adhere to the BRAT (bananas, rice, applesauce, toast) diet or have only clear liquids.
“If they’re hungry, they can eat most foods, but I’d stick to just a few mouthfuls until you’re sure they can keep it down,” Jana says.
Otherwise, whatever the rest of the family is eating is fine (including complex carbs such as brown rice and whole-grain bread, lean meats, yogurts, and fruits and veggies). Hold off on ice cream and potato chips, though: High-fat items are harder to digest.
While your child is ill, watch for signs of dehydration. If she fails to urinate for 8 hours, has no tears when crying, or has sunken eyes, call your doctor.
And to help ward off future gastrointestinal troubles, remind youngsters to wash their hands frequently, both at school and at home. This can reduce the chance of diarrhea episodes by about 30 percent, according to a 2015 research review by the Cochrane Collaboration.
Children in the U.S. miss 3 million days of school a year due to pink eye (conjunctivitis)—an inflammation of the conjunctiva, a membrane that covers the white part of the eye.
Up to 75 percent of all cases of pink eye in children are due to bacteria, according to a 2013 review published in JAMA. The rest are mainly due to viral infections such as the common cold or allergies.
Treatment tips: If your child has redness, itching, and a watery or thick discharge in and around one or both eyes, your pediatrician can determine whether it’s pink eye and what type it is.
Many people may be seeking and receiving the wrong care for pink eye. A study published in 2016 in the journal JAMA Ophthalmology, on almost 12 million eye-related emergency room visits between 2006 and 2011, found that 28 percent were for conjunctivitis—which is not considered an emergency. A study published in the same journal this week suggests that the vast majority of ER visits for pink eye are for children younger than age 7, brought there, researchers suspect, by new or first-time parents.
When it comes to kids’ health, many people think a course of antibiotics is best for bacterial pink eye. In fact, a University of Michigan study published last month in the journal Ophthalmology, which looked at more than 340,000 people diagnosed with pink eye, found that 58 percent filled prescriptions for topical antibiotics.
But this is not necessarily warranted. Research shows that the bacterial form of the condition usually resolves on its own after five to six days, says Blair Hammond, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at the Icahn School of Medicine in Mount Sinai.
Also of concern, one in five people in the above group filled prescriptions for combination antibiotic-steroid topics, which, the authors note, may prolong the duration of these infections.
Whether it’s bacterial, viral, or allergy-related, experts recommend relieving discomfort by applying a clean, wet compress to the area several times a day. The American Academy of Ophthalmology suggests a warm compress for bacterial or viral pink eye and a cool one for allergic conjunctivitis.
Be aware, though, that most schools require youngsters to be on antibiotic eye drops for 24 hours before returning to school. “Usually, I just give it to patients so they can get back to school or day care and their parents can go back to work,” Hammond says.
While your child has symptoms, help prevent pink eye from spreading to others by having him wash his hands well and frequently, and by carefully cleaning toys, blankets, doorknobs, and other objects that kids commonly touch or rub against their faces, the AAP says.
Once symptoms have subsided, help prevent reinfection by having your child wash his hands often, encouraging him not to touch his eyes, and ensuring that his washcloths and pillowcases are always clean.
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