Childhood Respiratory Infections
When is a cold just the common cold—or something more, like RSV virus, croup, the flu, whooping cough, or bronchitis? Many respiratory infections can be treated successfully at home, but it's important to know when to seek help.
The Common Cold
Millions of people each year are affected by the common cold. Children seem to be more prone to getting “the sniffles” because of school and daycare settings, where germs get passed around as often as notes and toys.
Treating a Cold
Dr. Abramson says that in young infants, overmedicating should be avoided. “Sometimes just a bulb suctioning of the mucus to help open up the airway, so that they can breathe” is effective, he says. For older children, decongestants are often prescribed, such as Sudafed or topical sprays like Neosynephrine. “Those are short-term treatments for just a few days,” says Dr. Abramson. “Sometimes just washing the nose with an over-the-counter
saline spray can be helpful.”
Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)
RSV is a virus that Dr. Abramson says almost everyone will eventually get, but the concern is for children under 2. Premature infants, infants with heart problems, such as congenital heart disease, and anyone with underlying immune deficiencies all need special attention to prevent RSV.
Symptoms and Treatment of RSV
The symptoms of RSV start by mimicking a cold, but then lead to increased coughing, difficulty breathing, and lethargy. RSV can lead to pneumonia and cause other complications requiring hospitalization.
Croup (laryngotracheobronchitis) is another viral infection associated with coughing and difficulty breathing. “One can hear a noise called ‘strider,’ which is a noise that’s noisy breathing when one takes in a deep breath or exhales, because the trachea is swollen,” says Dr. Abramson.
Treatment of Croup
Croup requires supportive care. “Humidified air is sometimes helpful, certainly if the child is not oxygenating (breathing) well,” says Dr. Abramson.
Difficulty breathing is criteria for being admitted to the hospital for more aggressive treatment. Breathing treatments are given to help reduce the inflammation and to facilitate breathing. But Dr. Abramson says hospitalization is usually not necessary unless the child is tiring out from coughing or dehydrated.
Influenza, another virus, can cause severe symptoms such as high fever, muscle aches, and chills and can lead to pneumonia, which can be life threatening. Dr. Abramson says it’s very important for everyone over the age of 6 months to get a flu shot.
Treating the Flu
Unlike other viruses, Dr. Abramson says there are some medications that can be given if the flu is detected early. “There are rapid tests for this that can be done at a doctor’s office or clinic,” he says.
Unlike RSV, influenza, croup, and the common cold, bronchitis can be caused by a bacteria or virus.
Symptoms and Treatment of Bronchitis
“If there’s wheezing, or what we call reactive airway disease, then the child may benefit from some breathing treatments in the hospital for a while,” says Dr. Abramson. If there are no complications, bronchitis can, and usually is, treated at home.
Whooping cough is a highly infectious respiratory illness that’s passed from person to person through tiny droplets containing the Bordetella pertussis bacteria expelled into the air when someone coughs or sneezes.
Symptoms and Treatment of Whooping Cough
“The first symptoms of
whooping cough mimic a common cold: a brief low-grade fever, runny nose, and a mild cough,” says Dr. Chris Patton of Nashville’s Old Harding Pediatric Associates. Over the course of one to two weeks, that cough gradually morphs into a wet hack that brings up thick mucus.
Red Flags to Watch For
While respiratory tract illnesses can sometimes be serious and require hospitalization, they are also quite common and can routinely be taken care of at home. “If a parent has questions, they should call their primary care physician,” says Dr. Abramson.
Babies’ and kids' developing immune systems require special treatment when they’re socked by colds or the flu. And with recalls and recommendations by medical organizations narrowing options for relieving children's symptoms, what's a parent to do? Here aview gallery
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