By Elaine K. Howley
Respiratory diseases are super common.
The human respiratory tract is open to the outside world to let air in and carbon dioxide out, making it an easy point of entry for germs that can potentially cause illness. Diseases that impact the respiratory system – the nose, throat and lungs – are very common, especially in children who have not yet built up immunity to common viruses and bacteria that can cause such problems.
These seven common childhood respiratory diseases may impact your child at some point. Know the signs and symptoms, and seek help from your pediatrician for any symptoms that linger or seem to get worse over time.
Also called the flu, “influenza is a virus that typically causes five to seven days of high fevers, muscle aches, fatigue, cough and runny nose,” says Dr. Katherine Williamson, a pediatrician with CHOC Children’s at Mission Hospital in Orange County, California, and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Complications from influenza are pneumonia and hospitalization from secondary bacterial infections.”
Influenza can be dangerous, even deadly, especially in young children. Kids’ fevers tend to be higher than in adults, and their digestive symptoms are typically worse, too.
But vaccines are available that can greatly reduce the risk of contracting the illness or lessen its symptoms if your child does get the flu. Your child can be vaccinated from age 6 months onward. Vaccines need to be administered annually, as the formulation changes each year in anticipation of the strain(s) expected to be prevalent in the next season. It takes about two weeks for the vaccine to become effective after it’s been administered.
There’s no medication that will cure a case of the flu outright, but “there is an antiviral medication called Oseltamivir (Tamiflu) that may shorten the duration of the illness if started in the first 48 hours of the onset of fevers,” Williamson says. You can also “help your body fight the infection with appropriate rest and fluids. Acetaminophen and ibuprofen can help with muscle aches, fevers and general discomfort.”
The common cold
Also caused by viruses, the common cold, aka an upper respiratory infection, is the primary reason kids stay home sick from school, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia reports that most children will have six to eight colds per year.
Symptoms typically include:
- Runny nose.
- Sore throat.
- Headache and body aches.
Common colds are caused by viruses that are “typically less severe than influenza and have a lower risk of causing a secondary pneumonia,” Williamson says. The symptoms are very similar in adults and children, but kids may also run a slight fever, whereas adults usually don’t.
Millions of people get colds each year in the U.S., and most of the time they aren’t serious and clear up on their own in a few days. Resting and drinking plenty of fluids can help your child feel better faster. But avoid giving over-the-counter cold medicines, especially if your child is under 2 years of age. In 2008, the Food and Drug Administration provided updated guidance that noted over-the-counter cough and cold products should not be used in infants and children under age 2 because of potentially dangerous side effects, including convulsions, increased heart rates, loss of consciousness and even death.
The CDC reports that more than 6.2 million children in the United States, or about 8% of all American kids, have asthma. Asthma is a potentially very serious lung disease that causes:
- Chest tightness or pressure.
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.
- Wheezing or whistling when exhaling.
Symptoms in adults tend to be the same as in children. However, adults may experience more persistent symptoms. Kids are also more likely to have allergies in addition to asthma than adults are.
Asthma attacks can be triggered by a number of factors, such as inhaling dust or pollen or exposure to an allergen such as pet dander. Asthma can put children at higher risk of bronchitis or pneumonia. It’s also the third-leading cause of hospitalizations among children under the age of 15, according to the American Lung Association.
If your child seems to be coughing a lot, coughing when exercising or has shortness of breath, visit the pediatrician. Wheezing or whistling breaths or repeated episodes of bronchitis should also send you to the doctor for an evaluation.
Also called a sinus infection, sinusitis is an inflammation or swelling of the tissue that lines the sinuses. Fluid can build up in these normally air-filled sacs behind the nose and eye and lead to an infection. It often accompanies a cold or the flu or may be triggered by allergies.
Sinusitis can lead to:
- Pain and pressure in the face, particularly behind the eyes and nose.
- Feeling very stuffed up or congested.
- Coughing and a runny nose.
- Post-nasal drip that may cause a sore throat, bad breath and nausea or vomiting.
In children, symptoms may linger longer than in adults. Using a neti pot to irrigate the sinuses or taking an over-the-counter decongestant may help bring down the inflammation and reduce symptoms. If a bacterial infection is present, your pediatrician may prescribe an antibiotic. In children with persistent sinusitis, surgery to clear the congested areas may be recommended.
Bronchitis is inflammation of the bronchi, or the large breathing tubes in the lungs. It’s usually caused by a virus and may develop after having had a cold or the flu. The constant cough is a classic symptom that can linger for three to four weeks after the virus has cleared the system. In addition to a chesty cough, symptoms may include:
- Runny nose.
- Chest pain and congestion.
- Fever and chills.
- Overall feeling of malaise or tiredness.
- Sore throat.
Symptoms are largely the same among adults and children with bronchitis, but kids with bronchitis may be more likely to swallow mucus rather than cough it up. Children with asthma or allergies or those who have chronic sinusitis are at higher risk of developing bronchitis. Sometimes asthma can be mistaken for bronchitis or vice versa, so when in doubt, check with your pediatrician. Treatment usually focuses on easing symptoms.
Croup, also called laryngotracheobronchitis, is usually caused by a virus that causes swelling in the trachea (windpipe) and larynx (voice box). The swelling prevents free flow of air into the lungs and creates a sort of squeaking or high-pitched wheezing sound when taking a deep breath in. You child’s voice may sound huskier than normal, too.
“Croup tends to affect younger children under 4 years of age and is characterized by a harsh, barky cough and respiratory distress,” Williamson says. Though it’s much more common among kids, adults can also develop croup.
Because it’s usually caused by a virus, croup is typically treated with rest, fluids and over-the-counter anti-inflammatories and painkillers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Breathing in humidified air may also help ease breathing, especially at night. For severe cases, your child may need steroids to bring down inflammation to make breathing easier.
Dr. Rajsree Nambudripad, an integrative medicine specialist with St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, California, says strep throat is quite common in children. “Up to 3 in 10 children with a sore throat will have strep throat,” she notes. By comparison, only about 1 in 10 adults with a sore throat will have strep, she says.
Because it’s caused by a bacterial infection, strep throat is typically treated with antibiotics. “The most commonly used antibiotic is penicillin or amoxicillin for 10 days,” Nambudripad says. The medicine is typically given as a liquid suspension to be drunk rather than a pill to be swallowed, as taking a pill may be difficult for younger children to manage. The dose will be adjusted according to your child’s body weight.
Strep should be taken seriously and treated as soon as possible in both children and adults. Left untreated, it can lead to serious health complications including rheumatic fever, which is a serious inflammatory condition that impacts the heart, joints, nervous system and skin. It can also lead to rheumatic heart disease and kidney disease.
“In children, there is a possible relationship between group A strep infection and a neurological condition called pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder associated with group A streptococci (PANDAS),” Nambudripad says. This condition causes neurologic symptoms, including obsessive compulsive disorder, tics and other mental health problems.
Pneumonia is caused by an infection of the lungs and can become a dangerous condition. Symptoms include:
- Rapid breathing.
- High fever and chills.
- Pain in the chest, especially when breathing.
Symptoms may be less obvious in children than adults, meaning that it might be harder to diagnose. The World Health Organization reports that pneumonia accounts for 15% of all deaths of children under 5 years.
Viruses, bacteria or fungi can be the culprit, and pneumonia may develop after your child has had a cold, the flu or strep throat. Bacterial pneumonia can be treated with antibiotics. There’s no specific medicine that can cure viral pneumonia, but your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication that will shorten the duration of the disease. Rest and plenty of fluids can also help your child feel a little better. Vaccines against pneumococcus, measles and whopping cough can reduce the risk that your child will develop pneumonia.
A word of caution: You should never use aspirin or any medication that contains aspirin to treat viral illnesses such as the flu, a cold or the chickenpox in children. Use of aspirin in treating viral infections has been associated with Reye syndrome, a potentially deadly condition that causes brain and liver damage in children. Fevers are generally a sign of a viral infection, so if your child has a fever, do not give aspirin. If in doubt, talk to your health care provider for guidance.
“The most important approach to respiratory illnesses is prevention,” Williamson says. Follow these simple tips to reduce transmission of these common diseases:
- Cover your cough or sneeze. Because these conditions are typically transmitted via coughs and sneezes, it’s important to cover your cough or sneeze – preferably with your elbow or a tissue rather than a bare hand.
- Wash your hands frequently. “Respiratory illnesses are transmitted through saliva and nasal secretions either through direct contact such as shaking hands, touching shared surfaces like doorknobs and countertops or coughing in a nearby area,” Williamson says. Be sure to wash for at least 20 seconds with warm water and soap to kill off any viruses or bacteria that may be lingering on your skin.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. These areas are common entry points for many viruses to enter the body.
- Limit contact with sick people. As much as possible, avoid contact with other people who are sick. This also means keeping a sick child home from school.
- Get vaccinated against the flu. “The most effective prevention for influenza is the flu vaccine, which significantly reduces the risk of contracting pneumonia or being hospitalized if you are exposed to someone with influenza,” Williamson says.