7 illnesses your child may catch this winter

You’re bound to hear it a few times this winter: “Mommy, I don’t feel good.” By age 2, most children catch eight to 10 cases of the common cold alone. And once they walk into a classroom full of other kids’ germs, they get sick even more often.

“With so many common illnesses, winter can be a challenging time for children and their families,” says Benjamin Fogel, MD, pediatrician, Penn State Children’s Hospital. “The best way to prevent most of these illnesses is washing hands and covering your mouth and nose when sneezing, skills even young children can learn! Your doctor’s office will help decide if a visit is needed and may be able to give you advice for what to do at home to keep your children feeling well.”

You can’t put your child in a bubble to protect against every sneeze and sniffle. But you can learn to spot the most common childhood illnesses—and learn what to do about them. Follow this guide to start. When in doubt, call the pediatrician, and always call the doctor for advice about symptoms in infants younger than 3 months old.

1) Common cold

Signs: Runny nose, sneezing, mild fever, poor appetite, cough, sore throat, swollen glands

Home treatment: Clear nostrils with a suction bulb or saline drops. Place a cool-mist humidifier in the room at night to ease sleep.

Call the doctor for: Colds in children age 3 months or younger, a temperature of 102 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, trouble breathing, blue lips or nails, ear pain or symptoms that last more than one week

2) Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)

Signs: Same as colds, sometimes wheezing or grunting with each breath

Home treatment: Give fluids, use a cool-mist vaporizer and clear the nose. Acetaminophen can relieve pain (always check labels for correct dosage, and never give a child aspirin).

Call the doctor for: The same reasons as for a cold, or extreme fatigue, thick and colored nasal discharge or a worsening cough

3) Flu

Signs: Fever, fatigue, sore throat, stuffy nose, sometimes vomiting and diarrhea (this is more common in kids than adults), and head, muscle or body aches

Home treatment: Practice prevention by having your child receive a yearly flu shot beginning at age 6 months. Once he or she is ill, rest and water work best.

Call the doctor for: Flu in children age 5 or younger or with a chronic illness, or for trouble breathing, severe vomiting, lack of interaction, extreme irritability or symptoms that improve and then return

4) Ear infections

Signs: Fever, earache, fluid draining from the ear, trouble sleeping or balancing, hearing loss

Home treatment: Put a warm, moist cloth over the painful ear. Acetaminophen can also ease the ache.

Call the doctor for: Fever higher than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or blood or pus oozing from the ears

5) Gastroenteritis (stomach flu)

Signs: Fever, stomach or abdominal pain, vomiting, watery diarrhea

Home treatment: Encourage rest, provide plenty of fluids and try to get your child to eat his or her regular diet.

Call the doctor for: Blood or bright-colored bile in the vomit or signs of dehydration, such as feeling very thirsty, producing less urine and fewer tears, sunken eyes or weight-loss

6) Croup

Signs: Barking, hacking cough that usually worsens at night

Home treatment: Moist air helps. Use a humidifier or sit in a steamy bathroom with your child for 10 minutes.

Call the doctor for: Trouble breathing or a high-pitched noise when inhaling, or dark or bluish skin around the face or fingernails

7) Strep throat

Signs: Severe pain when swallowing, tiny red spots on the roof of the mouth, high fever, white patches on the tonsils, swollen lymph nodes in the neck

Home treatment: Gargle with warm salt water, acetaminophen.

Call the doctor for: Any severe sore throat that may be strep

Need a Doctor? Physicians at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center have earned international acclaim for achievements in patient care, research and education. To find the right doctor for you and your family, visit

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