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Five Common Childhood Illnesses and How to Deal With Them

Being a parent involves wearing many hats: chef, counsellor, taxi driver, cleaner, and even paediatrician.

Dr Vicky Agunloye

There are so many new things we need to learn as parents. You have to become an expert on all sorts, including the array of coughs, cold, and bugs that your child will inevitably pick up in their early years. In this situation, knowledge is power; knowing how to care for your child when they feel unwell and what signs mean medical support is needed, is invaluable. Here, I outline the 5 illnesses that sound more sinister than they actually are and outline what you need to know about them. 

Hand, foot and mouth disease

This ominous sounding disease can often conjure up thoughts of foot and mouth disease – a completely different, much more serious condition that occurs in farm animals. In contrast, hand, foot and mouth is an extremely common childhood illness that many little ones catch. Whilst it’s not very pleasant, it normally clears up on its own within 7 to 10 days. 

The first signs of this disease might be a sore throat, a temperature above 38C, and a lack of appetite. This then develops into ulcers or sores in the mouth and a rash or blisters on the hands and feet. It can be uncomfortable for children and can also be passed on to adults, (whose symptoms can be more serious – my toenails fell out after my son got hand foot and mouth!). The mainstay of treatment is to drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated, whilst your child’s immune system fights off the virus. Cool drinks, soft foods, and liquid paracetamol can all help ease discomfort. 

You only need to seek help from a doctor if: symptoms don’t improve after 10 days, your child appears dehydrated, or if they present other symptoms that don’t fit the normal description. If you’re pregnant there are some additional risks, so you could also consult your GP if that’s the case. 

Febrile convulsions

Febrile means a fever (anything above 38 degrees) and convulsion means to have a seizure or fit. When some children between the ages of roughly 6 months to 5 years get a sudden, high fever it can cause some of them (about 1 in 20) to have a seizure. The cause of this is still unknown.  A febrile convulsion can be extremely scary, but try not to panic. 

How should you manage this? 

If your child has been running a high temperature and starts to seize (which typically sees their limbs go stiff and the body jerk), place them in the recovery position on the floor, stay with them, and don’t try to put anything in their mouth. If safe and possible for you to do so – time how long the seizure lasts, and take a video recording of it, as this can be helpful for doctors.. Most stop within 5 minutes.  It will then be normal for your child to be sleepy for a while after the seizure 20-60mins (on average).

  1. If it’s your child’s first seizure or it looks like it’s lasting more than 5 minutes, I’d advise calling 999 and going to your local A&E.
  2. Don’t try and bring your child’s temperature down quickly (such as by putting them in a cold bath). If your child is going to have a febrile convulsion, you cannot prevent it.
  3. They should only have one in a 24hr period, so if they have more, then once again please go to your local A&E

The vast majority of febrile seizures aren’t a cause for long-term concern and are actually caused by things like viral upper airway infections and ear infections, which don’t normally need antibiotics. However, a small portion may be caused by things like urine infections which will need antibiotics. So, if your child has a febrile convulsion and it’s not clear that they have a sore throat, ear infection, runny nose, etc. then I’d advocate seeing your doctor for a urine test and general check up. 

Only 50% of one year olds go on to have any more febrile convulsions after their first. Having a febrile convulsion in itself does not mean your child has epilepsy.

Viral exanthem

It might sound like something from Dr Who, but a viral exanthem is simply a rash caused by a virus. They are incredibly common in kids. There are a huge number of viruses that cause rashes to appear, but most are fairly benign and will go away on their own.  

A liquid antihistamine can be used if the rash is causing irritation. If the symptoms don’t clear up naturally within 72 hours, get significantly worse, or it appears to be another, more serious form of rash (such as those associated with meningitis), it’s important that you contact a medical professional.  Remember to perform the glass test – press the side of a clear glass firmly against your child’s rash.  If the rash does not fade under pressure, be sure to seek urgent medical assessment.

If you’re unsure if the rash is a cause for concern, but you’re keen to speak to a professional, I’d recommend intermediary services. These include NHS 111 or apps like Juno, where you can speak to a trained professional quickly and get advice on next steps.

Gastroenteritis

Incredibly common in adults, children and babies, gastroenteritis is a bout of vomiting and diarrhoea  which is often caused by a viral infection or stomach bug. Although unpleasant, it’s typically not serious and shouldn’t last longer than a few days. 

Aim to keep your child hydrated, encourage lots of rest, and let them eat what food they fancy (dry toast or crackers tend to be a good place to start). If you’re concerned about your child becoming dehydrated, a pharmacist can help you find oral hydration solutions (such as dioralyte) that might help. 

Vomiting normally only lasts 1-2 days, on average, but the diarrhoea can last up to 1-2 weeks. If either lasts for longer, or your child is unable to keep down any fluid or is showing signs of dehydration (you will know this because they won’t be weeing much or at all), it’s time to speak to a doctor. 

Oral allergy syndrome (OAS)

Oral allergy syndrome (OAS) is what happens when your child experiences irritation in their mouth after eating certain types of fruit or fresh vegetables (tomatoes are a very common cause of this). Whilst certain allergies can be extremely serious and sometimes life threatening, this is very rarely the case in oral allergy syndrome. 

OAS happens because the child’s immune system is mistaking the proteins in the food for pollen, triggering a mild allergic reaction. This can cause itchiness, discomfort and redness in and around the mouth and throat (children often say it makes their mouths feel ‘furry’ or ‘fuzzy’) that should dissipate soon after eating. Cooking the same fruit and vegetables before eating often stops this reaction.

If the rash and itching bothers them, you give your child a non-sedating antihistamine (always check the label). However, if your child’s face, lips or tongue starts to swell, they feel dizzy, look or feel unwell, or they have any difficulty breathing, call 999 immediately as they may be suffering from anaphylaxis which is much more serious.