Common Childhood Illnesses

There a range of common health issues which at some stage, affect most small people. And although every baby is a unique and special individual, they are still small humans, sharing similar vulnerabilities.

Read on to learn about some of the more common health problems and what you can do to support your child’s recovery.

Are you sick again?

Some babies and toddlers are more prone to becoming unwell and others just seem to have a greater resilience for illness. Most often, this is not because of the way they’re cared for but comes down to a child’s individual makeup.

Young children have an immature immune system and are more susceptible to infections. As they get older, their immunity develops and hey become more proficient at fighting off sickness. The other factor is that kids get up close and personal with each other and tend to share their love and germs.  Mucous and saliva are the perfect medium to spread germs, both of which kids are more than happy to share.

Constipation

Constipation is not an illness but it can certainly cause a fair degree of discomfort for small tummies.  Many people believe that constipation relates to the frequency of bowel motions and that if their child doesn’t poo every day, then they must be constipated. But the truth is that constipation is not about how often the child poos, but the consistency of the poo once it’s passed.

A normal poo consistency is soft, pasty and may also be formed. A constipated poo is dry, hard and pebbly. So even if it’s been a few days since your child has pooed, as long as their poo is soft/pasty/formed then their gut is working as it needs to.

The best way to fix constipation is through diet. Increase your baby’s fluid intake by offering them extra feeds. If they’re breastfed, you could try increasing the fibre intake in your own diet. If your baby is old enough for solid foods, then extra fruit, vegetables and drinks of water will help.

 Sometimes medication is needed to soften the poos and help the child to pass them. Speak with your GP or a pharmacist if you’re worried.

Cradle cap

Cradle cap is caused from a build up of sebum (oil) on a baby’s scalp. It looks like yellow or brown crusts and is most often on the top of the baby’s scalp around their soft spot (fontanelle).  Some babies secrete more oil than others and if their scalp isn’t washed regularly, skin cells and oil collect, forming cradle cap. Avoiding cradle cap is easier than treating it once it’s present.

Wash your baby’s scalp and hair every couple of days or better still, every time you bath them. In the same way you wash your own hair and scalp, do the same for your baby.

Gently massage some baby shampoo or baby wash into their scalp and use your fingertips to rub it in.  Use a washer if you’d prefer not to touch their fontanelle. Rinse all traces of the shampoo out and when drying your baby, use a soft towel to dry their hair and scalp. Finally, use a baby brush to massage their scalp and hair.

If your baby does have cradle cap, massage some olive oil into their scalp. Leave this to soften the crusts before washing out (see above) the next day.  You may need to repeat the oil treatment a couple of times before all the crusts have lifted.

Sometimes a special treatment is necessary if cradle cap is very bad or the baby has seborrhoeic dermatitis.  Speak with your Child Health Nurse or GP if your baby’s cradle cap isn’t clearing.

Rashes

Babies are prone to rashes because their skin is thin and sensitive and hasn’t been exposed to environmental factors. Some babies are particularly ‘rashy’ and seem to react quickly to any irritants. Sometimes the skin’s barrier function breaks down, allowing excess moisture and bacteria to enter the skin. Maintaining this barrier is important as an overall strategy to good skin health.

Bath your baby in water which is comfortably warm and not too hot, around 37 degrees Celsius. Use a gentle baby wash or cleanser to clean their skin and then dry them with a soft towel.

If your baby has nappy rash, apply a barrier cream which will help to protect their skin from wee and poo. And air your baby’s bottom each day by giving them some nappy free time.

Dry, red and flaky skin can be a sign of eczema which needs special attention to manage effectively. Eczema, like asthma and allergies, can run in families but fortunately, often improves as children get older.

Dehydration

Dehydration most commonly happens when a baby has been vomiting and/or having diarrhoea. When too much water is lost from their body, many of their body systems are affected and the baby becomes sleepy and lethargic.

Signs of dehydration are pretty clear but importantly, if you’re concerned your baby is dehydrated, you need to have them seen by a doctor.

Fewer wet nappies, sleepiness, difficulty rousing, a dry mouth and eyes and no tears are all signs of dehydration. If you pinch your baby’s skin and it doesn’t bounce back, then this is also a sign that they may be dehydrated.

Coughs and Colds

Viral infections in babies and young children are very common.  This is because the germs which cause them are very resilient and constantly evolve to ensure their own survival.

Antibiotics don’t work in the treatment of colds. The only proven, effective way to combat a cold is to support the baby’s immune system to help fight the infection. Lots of loving, supportive care, excellent nutrition and extra sleep all help. Keeping the baby or toddler warm and comfortable, lots of cuddles and staying home to minimise spread all help to support recovery.

Ear Infections

Can be very painful for adults, but particularly for babies and children who don’t have the capacity to understand what’s causing their discomfort.   Babies and toddlers tend to get more middle ear infections   because they have smaller Eustachian tubes.  These are small tubes or pathways which   connect the middle ear to their throat. Cold viruses and germs from the throat can migrate up into their middle ear and cause an infection.  

It’s not uncommon for some children to have multiple ear infections every year. Once the standard treatment was antibiotics, but our understanding of antibiotic resistance has improved and we also know that often, ear infections are caused by a virus rather than bacteria.

Hearing can be affected by repeated colds and ear infections.  There is also an increased risk of tooth decay in children who get lots of ear infections. If you’re worried, have your child’s hearing assessed and take them to a dentist. 

Fever

An elevated temperature or fever is a sign of that the body is fighting an infection. A raise in body temperature means the immune system has been activated and is a signal that the body’s immune response has been activated. 

A normal body temperature is between 36.5-38 degrees Celsius. The best way to check a child’s temperature is to use a digital thermometer under their arm. Another option is to check using one placed against their forehead. 

Temperatures generally climb towards the late afternoon and evening and are lowest earlier in the day.  It’s important to have your baby assessed by a doctor is they have a temperature or any other signs of an illness.

Heat stroke

During the long summer months, heat stroke happens more commonly than we’re aware.  It’s generally related to being outside and the body overheating to a point where normal functioning is affected.

Prevention of heat stroke is important and easier than treatment which can involve intravenous fluids and rehydration.

Keep your child out of the sun and look for shady areas to park their pram or for you to stand whilst holding them.  Make sure you’re offering extra feeds and drink plenty of water yourself.  Stay in air-conditioned areas if possible and if not, then time your daytime outings to be short.  Use every sun protection product available for your child including clothing, sunglasses, pram cover, car window filter, rash vests (if swimming) and sun-block. 

NB: Be mindful of pram cover safety and that your baby still has adequate air flow inside their pram.

Conjunctivitis

This is a common eye infection which is caused by bacteria or a virus affecting the conjunctiva (membrane) of the eye. Sometimes a blocked tear duct contributes to conjunctivitis and needs to be cleared by surgery. Conjunctivitis responds very quickly to antibiotic drops and/or ointment.

Be very careful about your own hand washing and not touching or rubbing your baby’s eyes. Clean their eyes with a cotton pad or cotton wool soaked in tap water.  Gently wipe from the inside of their eye towards the outer corner and use a clean pad each time you wipe. Dispose of the infected wipe carefully.

Thrush

Is caused by a yeast organism which normally colonises the skin, bowel, gut and mouth and generally doesn’t cause symptoms. If, however, the pH of the skin changes or the candida albicans grows too much causing the skin’s flora to become unbalanced,   it can cause a thrush infection.

Thrush in the baby’s mouth appears like white patches on their inner cheeks and gums. Thrush in the nappy area looks like small red pimples. Anti-fungal drops for the mouth and cream for the nappy area are very effective in treating thrush. If you are breastfeeding, consider if you need to treat your nipples as well.  Nipple thrush can be very painful and itchy and unless it’s treated, the baby can become reinfected. 

If you are concerned:

If you’re worried about your baby or toddler or think they are sick, have them checked by your GP. Early diagnosis and treatment is important and can shorten recovery time and prevent complications.

Written by: Jane Barry, Midwife and Child Health Nurse