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7 common illnesses in childhood (and what to do about them)

Common childhood illnesses: how to treat them and when to worry

Kids constantly seem to be catching something. If it isn’t a cold or a dribbly nose of some sort, they may be complaining of a tummy ache, scratching at something or pulling their ears in pain.

The good news is, most of the problems you’ll come up against are just an everyday part of growing up. If you have a young child, here’s a list of some common childhood conditions you may (or hopefully, won't!) have to deal with.

1. Coughs, colds and flu

Your child’s nose is dribbling. They’re coughing and sneezing, have a bit of a
temperature and seem unwell. If your child has recently started going to the nursery or playgroup, this may feel like a never-ending story in your house. The good news is, these regular coughs and colds are helping to build your child’s immune system. Flu tends to be a little more severe and can be more serious than a common cold. It can leave your child feeling pretty unwell, achy and uncomfortable for a week or even longer. You can help your child feel more comfortable by:

  • Giving your child plenty to drink
  • Giving them junior paracetamol or ibuprofen* (check you have the right dose and strength for your child’s age)
  • Keeping them away from smoke and anyone who smokes
  • Speaking to your pharmacist about other ways to help
See a GP if your baby:
  • has a temperature of 38 C or more
  • has a fever with a rash
  • isn’t waking up or interacting with you
  • is finding it hard to breathe

2. Asthma

Asthma is a common lung condition that often begins in childhood. It affects the
airways, making it difficult to breathe and often presents with symptoms such as
wheezing, coughing, breathlessness, and chest tightness. The severity of symptoms is different for each child with asthma and is usually treated with an inhaler. See your doctor if you think your child may have asthma. Your GP may carry out some simple tests and ask about your child's symptoms to make a diagnosis . If your child has a sudden, severe onset of symptoms, they may be having an asthma attack. If your child is struggling to breathe or is showing severe symptoms of asthma, dial 999 immediately.

3. Bronchiolitis

Bronchiolitis is a common respiratory tract infection which affects babies and children under two years old. Most cases are mild and will clear up within 2 to 3 weeks on their own, though some children may need hospital treatment if symptoms are severe. Early signs of bronchiolitis resemble a common cold (such as a runny nose and cough), but as it develops, your child may also have a slight fever, dry and persistent cough, difficulty feeding, and rapid or noisy breathing. There’s no medication to kill the virus that causes bronchiolitis so you would care for your child in the same way that you’d treat a cold. This may include keeping your child hydrated and giving them ibuprofen* or paracetamol (as appropriate for their age) if the fever is upsetting them.

See your doctor or call NHS 111 if:

  • you’re worried about your child
  • your child has had less than half their usual amount during the last 2 or 3 feeds or has had a dry nappy for 12 hours or more
  • your child has a persistent temperature of 38C or above
  • your child seems irritable or very tired

Dial 999 for an ambulance if:

  • your baby is struggling to breathe
  • your baby’s tongue or lips are blue
  • there are long pauses as your baby breathes

4. Gastroenteritis

Gastroenteritis is a common condition that causes diarrhoea and vomiting in children and is most often caused by a bacterial or viral tummy bug 5. The main symptoms of illness are sudden, watery diarrhoea, feeling sick, vomiting (may be projectile) and mild fever. They may also have a loss of appetite, aching limbs, stomach upset, and a headache. Gastroenteritis usually passes within a week on its own but can sometimes last longer. You can usually look after your child at home until he or she feels better.

Ways to help care for your child at home, include:

  • giving them regular drinks, water, or ice-lollies (for older children), avoiding fruit juice or squash as this can make diarrhoea worse. If breastfeeding, continue doing so.
  • giving them re-hydrating solutions available from your pharmacist if they have signs of dehydration, which usually come in pre-measured sachets that you mix with water
  • offering them plain foods like pasta or boiled rice (nothing too rich or salty), if they want to eat
  • being very careful about hand hygiene to avoid passing along the infection. Uses soap and water or anti-bacterial hand gel, and use a clean towel to dry hands very well

See your GP if your child:

  • shows signs of dehydration, or is at increased risk of dehydration
  • shows signs of a more serious illness
  • has been vomiting for more than three days
  • has had diarrhoea for longer than a week
  • had blood or mucus in their stools
  • has a weakened immune system
  • has been overseas recently

5. Ear infection

If your bub is pulling at their ear or complaining of ear pain, listen up–they may have an ear infection. Ear infections are common in babies and toddlers (particularly after a cold), and most are caused by viruses which cannot be treated with antibiotics . Ear infections may be painful for children, and a child may rub or pull at their ears. Young babies may simply cry and seem irritable as they can’t always tell where the pain is coming from. They may also have a temperature and discharge coming out of their ear. It’s usually not serious and clears up on its own within three days. To help them feel better, you can use painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, place a warm or cold flannel on their ear, and remove any discharge by wiping the ear with cotton wool. And don’t forget to give them lots of extra cuddles!

See your GP if your child has:

  • a very high temperature, or is feeling hot and shivery
  • an earache that doesn’t start to get better after three days
  • swelling around the ear
  • hearing loss or a change in hearing
  • symptoms like being sick, severe throat, or dizziness
  • regular ear infections
  • a long-term medical condition such as diabetes, lung, kidney or neurological disease
  • a weakened immune system, due to chemotherapy for example

6. Chickenpox

Chickenpox is a mild disease that most children will have at some point. It’s easy to catch chickenpox, and the main symptom is the rash–red spots that can appear anywhere on the body and fill with fluid before they begin to scab over. Blisters may burst, and some blisters may appear as others are scabbing over. Other symptoms your child may have, include a high temperature above 38 C, aches and pains, loss of appetite, and generally feeling unwell. It usually gets better within a week without seeing a GP, but your child will need to stay away from school or the nursery until all spots have crusted over; usually, about 5 days after spots begin to appear.

See your GP if:

  • you’re not sure if it’s chickenpox
  • the skin around the blisters is red, hot or painful (signs of infection)
  • your child is dehydrated
  • you’re concerned about your child, or they are getting worse

7. Conjunctivitis

Conjunctivitis is a common eye infection that may affect children. It is caused by allergies or infection. If your child has conjunctivitis, they may have bloodshot, itchy eyes that burn or feel gritty; their eyes may water more than usual and might have a discharge which sticks to the lashes. Conjunctivitis that produces sticky pus and red, gritty eyes is usually contagious. If allergies are behind your child’s conjunctivitis, their eyes may be red and watery, but they won’t be contagious 9 .

Viral or bacterial conjunctivitis is infectious (allergic conjunctivitis is not). You can help prevent the spread of infection and care for your child while they have conjunctivitis by:

  • encouraging them to wash their hands frequently with warm soapy water
  • washing pillows and face cloths in hot water and detergent
  • asking them to try to avoid rubbing their eyes
  • not sharing towels or pillows
  • gently cleaning away crusty discharge with clean cotton wool soaked in boiled
  • cool water (use a clean piece of cotton for each eye)

Conjunctivitis usually isn’t serious and often gets better within a couple of weeks without treatment. See your doctor if your child’s conjunctivitis doesn’t clear up within that time or if your baby’s eyes are red. See your GP urgently if your baby has red eyes and is less than 28 days old, or your child complains of sensitivity to light, changes in their vision, or has an intense redness in one or both eyes.


*Nurofen for Children Orange/Strawberry: Singles / Cold, Pain and Fever 100g/5ml Oral suspension / Baby Oral suspension /3 months to 9 years 100mg/5ml Oral suspension / 3 months to 12 years Oral suspension. Contains ibuprofen, for children over 3 months (weighing more than 5kg) to 12 years. For pain relief. Nurofen for children 100 mg, chewable capsules, soft. For fever and pain relief in children aged 7 to 12 years. Contains Ibuprofen. Always read the label. Use only as directed. If symptoms persist consult your healthcare professional. All information presented on these web pages is not meant to diagnose or prescribe. For further advice please speak to your doctor or pharmacist.

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