Medical Matters: Recognise signs and symptoms of children's winter illnesses

Make sure your tot has the flu vaccination, say health officials.

Common viral illnesses can affect children during winter - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Medical Matters - Dr Rowan Kerr-Liddell, Clinical Service Lead for Paediatrics and Child Health at Torbay and South Devon NHS Foundation Trust, talks about children’s winter illnesses: 

Many children experience common illnesses like coughs and colds, it is part of growing up, but it is good to recognise signs and symptoms and how you can help your child if they fall ill.

With winter just around the corner, I am going to highlight some of the common viral illnesses that affect children during this period, and what you can do if your child falls ill. 

Coughs and colds 

Colds are very common in young children and the average child has ten colds a year, they are caused by viruses and so antibiotics do not help. Small babies may struggle because their noses are blocked and can be helped with nasal saline drops from a pharmacy.

If your child is miserable, hot or uncomfortable, paracetamol can help.

Children with colds need plenty of fluids so ensure you give your child lots of drinks, and babies may need smaller milk feeds, more often than usual.  

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Flu and Covid-19 

Influenza (flu) usually goes on for longer than a cold and is more likely to be accompanied by a dry cough and a fever, and they may have diarrhoea and vomiting.

Please be aware that the symptoms of flu and Covid-19 are similar, and children may appear to have a cold when, in fact, they Covid-19.

Most children with Covid-19 remain well and do not need medical attention.

However, if you think your child may have Covid-19, you should request a PCR test. 

Bronchiolitis 

Bronchiolitis is an illness caused by viruses which produce inflammation in the lungs of children under two.

The most common virus is RSV.

Babies will start out with a cold but may develop breathing difficulties.

Look for sucking in of the chest below and between the ribs, and if baby looks blue and is really struggling to breathe, or is very sleepy and is difficult to wake up, you need to call 999.

If your baby is not taking at least half their usual feeds or is not passing urine in a 12-hour period or has a high fever, you should seek medical help via your GP, 111 or an emergency department.

Croup 

Children with croup have a barking cough and a noise when they breathe in.

Croup is also caused by a virus.

If your child is struggling to breathe, has a fever over 38 or is making a noise when they breathe in, even when they are resting, you need to seek medical attention.

If your child only has a barking cough, paracetamol may help for comfort.

Cold air often helps the swelling and you can open the freezer door and let them take a few breaths of the very cold air. 

Diarrhoea and vomiting 

This is typically caused by viruses and usually gets better on its own.

Offer your child small but frequent drinks, but don’t worry if they don’t feel like eating.  

What can I do to help my child? 

Handwashing helps prevent the spread of many childhood infectious diseases.

Avoiding kisses from adults who have colds, this reduces the chance of babies catching the virus.

All babies from six months to two years old are entitled to a flu vaccine injection.

All children aged two or over on August 31 to Year 11 pupils in England are being offered a nasal flu spray this year.

A single dose of Covid-19 vaccine is being offered to all children of 12 and over in England. 

The HANDi paediatric app allows parents and carers, as well as doctors, to access advice tailored for Torbay and South Devon.

It provides information on how to care for your unwell child at home and when to seek help for common childhood illnesses.

Developed by NHS organisations in Devon, it is free and can be downloaded to any Apple or Android smartphone or tablet.

You can select where you live and the information will be tailored to your area. 

You will be asked about your child’s condition and the app will classify the child into either a red category, needs urgent help and advises calling 999; an amber category, needs medical attention with suggestions on how to seek help; and a green category, condition can be safely managed at home with a home care plan which is provided on the app.

It will also inform you when to seek help should your child continue to be unwell.  

Dr Rowan Kerr-Liddell has been a Consultant Paediatrician at Torbay and South Devon NHS Foundation Trust since 2011 with a break in service of three years to work in Nova Scotia, Canada, before returning to Torbay Hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic. She is the Clinical Service Lead for Paediatrics and Child Health at Torbay and South Devon NHS Foundation Trust and has a special interest in congenital heart disease and premature babies.