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Common health problems for children, and how to avoid them

16 November, 2016
How to avoid common children's health problems

While health issues for children tend to be different than those for adults, there are some problems that are common for children you should be aware of.

During infancy and the preschool years, the average child gets seven or eight colds a year. During the school-age years, they average five or six colds a year. With some colds lasting upwards of a week, it can often feel like you’re constantly facing sickness. Especially when that sickness generously makes its way through the entire family.

The frequency of childhood sickness boils down to the fact there are more than 200 viruses that can cause the common cold. As children have not yet had exposure to many of these germs, they’re quite susceptible to catching each and every one they come into contact with.

But on top of colds there are many other illnesses that are common in children.


Respiratory syncytial virus

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is the most common cause of breathing and respiratory infections in children, with children under two years of age being the most susceptible. RSV causes infection of the lungs and breathing passages.

In most cases, the symptoms are relatively minor and mirror those of a cold. But for premature babies and children with a compromised immune system, a congenital heart condition, or chronic lung disease, it can quickly become serious and cause either bronchiolitis or pneumonia.

According to SA Health, almost all children will be affected by a RSV infection at least once by the age of two. Most likely this will occur during winter or early spring. It’s spread when an infected person talks, coughs or sneezes small droplets containing infectious agents into the air. It is also spread via contact with the hands, tissues and other articles soiled by infected nose and throat discharges. The virus survives only a few hours outside of the body and is easily killed by soap and water or disinfectants.

Should your child get an RSV, it is unlikely they will need treatment, however you should keep them at home for 5-8 days until they recover. Your doctor will be able to consult on the best course of action for your child’s health.

Ear Infection

Ear infections are common in small children, but often resolve on their own, and children grow up to have healthy ears and normal hearing. There are 2 types of ear infections that children commonly contract: middle and outer ear infections. Depending on the age of the child, ear infections clear up on their own without antibiotics, however it is important to speak to your doctor for the proper course of action.

See your doctor if your child still has an ear ache after 48 hours, their symptoms get worse or they have difficultly hearing after 6-8 weeks.

While your child is sick with an ear infection, it is important to not them go swimming or submerge their head under water.

Signs and Symptoms:

  • Trouble hearing;
  • Pulling on their ear;
  • Your child has become irritable due to the pain;
  • Vomiting, loss of appetite, lethargy and fever;
  • A middle ear infection is often associated with a cold or flu;
  • Outer ear infections commonly include redness or swelling of the ear as well as being painful to touch; and
  • Middle Ear Infections often happen with a cold or flu and include pus sometimes breaking through the eardrum and a fever.



Gastroenteritis is a bowel infection that causes inflammation of the stomach and intestines, which leads to diarrhoea and sometimes vomiting. The vomiting may stop quickly, but the diarrhoea can last for up to ten days. Gastro can be caused by many different germs, although the most common cause of gastro is a viral or bacterial infection.

Gastro will cause your child to feel unwell and they may not want to eat or drink. Vomiting may occur in the first 24 to 48 hours and will be accompanied by stomach pains and maybe a fever. Young babies and children can become dehydrated quickly, therefore if they show any signs of dehydration (drowsiness, not waking for feeds) they will need to be checked by a doctor. Babies under six months old will need to be checked again after 6 to 12 hours.

Most children that get gastro can be treated at home, with the main treatment being lots of fluids. It is not recommended to give medicines to reduce vomiting and diarrhoea – not only will they not work, they can be harmful to young children. Keep fluids up even if the diarrhoea seems to get worse and keep your child away from other children until the diarrhoea has stopped. It’s also crucial that you regularly wash your hands with soap and water when caring for your child.



Roseola is a viral illness that most commonly affects young children between six months and two years old. It’s usually characterised by several days of a high fever and breakout of a rash as the fever slows. Sometimes, however, the symptoms can be so mild that you may not even realise your child has a virus.

Roseola in babiesThe effects of roseola can last up to a week, and during this time your child might be ill-tempered or irritable. They may experience a loss of appetite and have swollen glands in the neck. The fever can last for anywhere from a few hours to five days. Following this, a raised, red rash appears on the neck and body (often confused with measles) and can go on to cover the face and limbs. 

The most problematic issue that can arise from roseola is the risk of febrile seizures, which affect about 10-15% of children with roseola. It is therefore imperative to keep close watch of your child if they are suffering from roseola.
Symptoms of febrile convulsions include:

  • Unconsciousness;
  • Several minutes of twitching and jerking in the arms, legs or face; and
  • Loss of bladder and bowel control.

Roseola is contagious and can spread in the same way a cold can.  You should ensure your child drinks lots of fluids. If your child becomes lethargic and won’t drink, call the doctor.


Hand, Foot & Mouth Disease

Hand, foot and mouth disease is a usually mild virus that is common in children. Caused by a virus (usually from the coxsackie group of enteroviruses), it can cause blisters on the hands and feet, in the mouth and often in the nappy area. Symptoms can last around seven to ten days.

HFMD can be spread easily between children. The infection is spread by direct contact with fluid from the skin blisters, nose and throat discharges, droplets and faeces. Good personal hygiene is important to prevent the spread of the infection to others. The blisters will remain infectious until they become crusty and there is no more fluid in them. The virus can be shed in the faeces for several weeks after the blisters have gone. Children should stay home from school until the blisters and fever have completely cleared up.

It is important to monitor your child’s illness and consult a doctor if symptoms escalate.

Signs that an infant or older child might have a more serious form of hand, foot and mouth disease include any of the following:

  • Persistent fever (38°C or above for 72 hours or more);
  • Abnormal movements / jerking movements;
  • Rapid breathing;
  • Excessive tiredness, drowsiness;
  • Excessive irritability; and
  • Difficulty walking.

If any of these signs are present then the child should be seen by a doctor urgently even if they have been checked earlier in the illness.



Conjunctivitis is a common eye infection which causes inflammation, swelling and redness of the conjunctiva (the clear membrane covering the white part of the eye and the inner surface of the eyelids). Conjunctivitis is especially common in children under five years of age.

Conjunctivitis is usually caused by a highly contagious virus or bacteria, or sometimes by a non-contagious allergic reaction. A child can catch infective conjunctivitis from coming in close contact with another person who is infected, through coughing, sneezing or general exchange of germs. Conjunctivitis can also be spread via contaminated hands or objects, so it’s important to encourage children to wash their hands after being in contact with somebody who has it.

During summer, conjunctivitis is easily spread when children swim in contaminated water or share contaminated towels.

Symptoms of conjunctivitis include:

  • Red, itchy and ‘weepy’ eyes;
  • Redness on the white of the eye and behind the eyelid;
  • Swelling of the eye/s making them appear puffy;
  • Watery eyes;
  • Discharge from the eye which dries as your child sleeps, causing a crust to develop around the eyelids; and
  • Sensitiveness to bright light.

As it is difficult to determine whether your child has a viral infection or the conjunctivitis is the result of an allergic reaction, it is best to treat each case as contagious.

There is no specific treatment for conjunctivitis, however gentle cleaning of the eye area with cotton balls soaked in warm water may help your child be more comfortable. Clean in one direction only and discard after use.

Always consult a doctor if symptoms persist or become more severe.



Asthma causes swelling and inflammation of the bronchi, making it difficult for air to pass through to the lungs. Approximately one in four children will experience wheezing and asthma sometime during childhood, with the symptoms of asthma lasting upwards of a few days. Asthma in children
The most common signs of asthma are:

  • Coughing – usually at night, during the early hours of the morning, during exercise, and when the weather is cool;
  • Wheezing when breathing – resembles a whistling sound; 
  • Shortness of breath and general difficulty breathing.

If you suspect your child may have asthma, talk to your doctor. It’s not always possible to know when an asthma attack may happen, but your doctor will be able to talk you through treatments and common triggers, such as:

  • Colds;
  • Exercise;
  • Changes in the weather;
  • Cigarette smoke;
  • House dust mites;
  • Pollen; and
  • Pets.


Worms are a type of parasite, and they are commonly found in children between five to ten years old. Threadworm infection is not a usually harmful and can be easily treated with medication. However, repeat infections can be common so precaution should be taken in preventing the spread of worms to others.

Children can become infected with threadworms if they accidently get worm eggs on their hands and swallow them, via worm-infected dust on bed linen or toys. Once swallowed, the threadworms live in the small intestine where they hatch and then lay more eggs in the area between the buttocks. This is what causes the annoying itching, and it the child scratches their bottom and then touches their mouth, the eggs can be swallowed again and the cycle repeated.

If your child gets worms, you should treat everyone in the family with anti-parasitic tablets (available over the pharmacy counter). You should also keep your child home from school and wash their clothes and bedsheets in hot soapy water for several days following treatment.

If you notice your child is scratching their bottom, irritable and not sleeping well, it could be a sign of worms.

The reality is that the viruses responsible for colds, flu and other common illnesses are preventable with the right care. Children should:

  • Know how and when to wash their hands;
  • Use hand sanitiser regularly when soap and water is not available;
  • Be taught germ etiquette;
  • Use their own classroom supplies;
  • Avoid sharing drinks, lip balms;
  • Keep their backpacks clean; and
  • Build better immunity through good sleep, regular exercise and a healthy diet.

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All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified medical practitioner. CBHS endeavours to provide independent and complete information, and content may include information regarding services, products and procedures not covered by CBHS Health Cover policies. For full terms, click here.

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