Some of you may vaguely remember November of 2019 and before: a time when sniffles and minor fevers were potential daycare inconveniences rather than cataclysmic life events, and your mother-in-law referred to every throat-clearing as a “croupy cough” rather than a “near-death experience.” As parents, a “just a virus” diagnosis generally was reassuring. We didn’t necessarily spend a lot of time or energy trying to decipher the precise virus at fault. A more or less baffling array of inhalers and nebulizers, steroids, and the occasional antibiotic (for the not “just a virus” varieties) were the main clue that not all acute childhood respiratory illnesses are identical in their effects and significance. An ER visit, hospital stay, or even time in the PICU (pediatric intensive care unit) might prompt – unfortunately – a more in-depth perspective for a small but real percentage of you.
Navigating a virus in a post-COVID world
Now, we live in a world where having some idea of which virus is affecting your child may spare us some sleepless, anxious nights and give us a good sense of how to help them and what we should be looking out for. In general, if you are feeling uneasy about your child’s health, it is never wrong to contact their pediatrician for advice and guidance. And any child who appears to be working hard to breathe or struggling to move air well, excessively sleepy or inconsolable, or who cannot take in or keep down enough fluids to remain well-hydrated should have an immediate evaluation in an ER.
Earlier attention may be necessary if your child is particularly vulnerable to illnesses – if they are a young infant or have asthma, diabetes, congenital heart disease, or any other chronic or complex medical condition. If, however, your child is generally in good health and their symptoms are mild, this guide may help you to figure out which virus is causing the trouble.
A family of viruses called rhinoviruses often causes the common cold. Viruses in the coronavirus family can also cause the common cold. They are related to COVID-19 but are less virulent and have long circulated within the population. The illnesses caused by these viruses are generally subtle in onset – they may start with a runny nose or mild nasal congestion, or a low-grade fever – and they tend to last around 5-10 days total. During that time, children feel pretty crummy, they may not sleep well, and they may be irritable and uninterested in eating or drinking as they normally would.
As a parent, all you can do is provide them with symptomatic care such as Tylenol and watch out for signs that they are not taking in enough fluids (not making wet diapers as frequently as usual, as the main example). Humidified air may help some children feel more comfortable. Just make sure the machine is well-cleaned before use and – for your own sake – doesn’t leak all over your floor. It is important to know that cough suppressants/cough syrups are not recommended for children under three years of age.
Influenza (a.k.a., seasonal flu)
Most of the time, children experience seasonal flu as a particularly nasty cold. They may have high fevers, chills, body aches, body shaking (also called rigors), headaches, and severe cough. This can last for 7-10 days typically, and then your child will experience a gradual improvement and return to normal activity. In a few patients, influenza can cause very severe illness, resulting in hospitalization and even death, so it’s important to prevent severe cases if you can.
Fortunately, the annual flu shot prevents severe illness in the vast majority of people. I strongly recommend that you and your children (six months and up) get a flu shot every year. These shots can easily be obtained through your pediatrician or a retail pharmacy. For breakthrough cases, a course of Tamiflu can lessen the severity and duration of illness if given within the first 48-72 hours of symptom onset.
RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus)
RSV in older children and adults is typically indistinguishable from the common cold. It is characterized by a strong cough that may come in fits of coughing, lasts for 7-10 days, and can generally make you feel rotten for a while. In smaller children and infants, however, RSV can be quite severe and even life-threatening, leading to a stay in the hospital or PICU. Children in this age group may exhibit fits of coughing, with or without vomiting after the cough, wheezing, and difficulty breathing such that they breathe very fast and very hard. Any child who seems to be having difficulty breathing should be evaluated urgently.
There is no specific treatment available for RSV, so medical professionals will provide supportive care – suctioning the nose, oxygen, and even breathing machines if needed – until your child can fight off the virus. Specific groups of highly vulnerable children under two years of age – those born very prematurely or with congenital heart disease – are recommended to get a monthly infusion of a preventive treatment called Synagis to lessen the likelihood of severe disease. Your doctor can tell you whether your child requires this measure.
The parainfluenza virus most often causes croup. It manifests mostly in small children and infants as a “barky” cough – like a seal – associated with fever, sore throat, body aches, and sometimes noisy breathing, especially as the child attempts to breathe in (this noise is called stridor, as opposed to wheezing, which happens with exhalation). The cough may come in fits and followed by vomiting. As the swelling that causes the noisy breathing worsens, children can struggle to breathe and get quite irritable and panicked.
Steamy or particularly cold air can at least temporarily help the child get air in – which is why the child often looks better after going out into the cold air on the way to the ER. Particularly severe cases may require a course of steroids for the airway swelling, and the most severe cases can require hospitalization and special breathing treatments. The worse of the croup is usually pasts by day three of the illness, though symptoms can last a total of 5-10 days overall.
At this time, COVID-19 can’t properly be classified among the seasonal viral illnesses, but its symptoms are similar enough to the above, and it is so much a part of our daily ruminations that I would be remiss not to mention it. Many children have asymptomatic infections, but those who do exhibit symptoms tend to have cough and fever, which may be quite high, and older children may report a loss of smell or taste.
Since its symptoms overlap significantly with the above viruses, only a dedicated diagnostic test will be able to truly tell the difference, and timely testing and isolation of affected patients and their contacts is still a huge part of trying to contain the damage the virus can cause. Doctors and researchers have made enormous strides in their understanding of the best ways to treat this novel virus, but patients who do get severe cases – and that includes a very small percentage of children – are still at risk of hospitalization and death.
Vaccination is the best prevention
Vaccines are by far the best way to prevent severe illness and death from COVID-19. I cannot stress enough how strongly I encourage all who are eligible to schedule an appointment to receive a vaccine if you have not yet done so. These vaccines are well-studied, safe, and highly effective.
I jumped at the chance to enroll my eight-year-old in a vaccine trial when I could, and I will make sure he’s been vaccinated as soon as I possibly can. For the sake of my 3-year-old, who will obviously not be eligible yet, I hope that everyone who is eligible themselves or whose child is eligible will get vaccinated. I am looking forward to the time when she is eligible so that she can be vaccinated as well. I almost don’t dare to imagine how normal life will look and how safe I will feel when that happens. But I’m starting to feel a bit braver in my daydreams.
I hope you find this brief guide helpful throughout this fall and winter. Stay safe, stay healthy, and stay hopeful. And wash your hands, cover your coughs, stay home when you’re sick, wear a mask when it’s appropriate, and get vaccinated against both the flu and COVID-19 when you can.