Young children seem to be constantly catching something. Colds, coughs, fevers and gastro are common health issues for children in these years. But how do you know when to treat these child health issues at home and when to see a doctor? This article explains.
Child health and your family GP
Mild illnesses are part of growing up – there’s not a lot you can do to help your child avoid them. But if you’re ever worried about your child’s health, you should see your GP.
Knowing you have good medical care for your young child can put your mind at ease, and choosing a good family doctor ahead of time can save you a lot of worry. It’s important for you and your child to have a good relationship with the GP and feel confident about the GP’s advice .
There might be times when you’re not happy with a doctor’s diagnosis or advice. It’s OK to want a second opinion or to consider changing doctors.
Going to hospital
can be very stressful for children, as well as for you and the rest of your family. If you can plan ahead for your child’s hospital stay, it can help to reduce worry and stress for you and your child.
Common child health issues
Here’s a quick guide to some of the most common child health issues in Australia.
Children get lots of colds – it can be as often as once a month. The best treatment is usually fluids, comfort and rest. Antibiotics won’t help. If you’re worried that it’s something more serious than a cold, see your GP.
Lots of children get gastroenteritis (‘gastro’). Symptoms include diarrhoea, loss of appetite, vomiting and nausea, stomach cramps and fever. Gastro spreads easily. You can help prevent the spread of gastro with careful handwashing and by making sure family members don’t share drink bottles, cups or food utensils. Most cases of gastroenteritis in children aren’t serious, but it’s important to make sure that your child gets enough fluid.
Conjunctivitis is an infection of the lining of the eyeball and eyelids. Conjunctivitis can be caused by a virus, bacteria or allergy. Symptoms include red, puffy, sticky and sore eyes. Bacterial and viral conjunctivitis are very contagious, but allergic conjunctivitis isn’t contagious. You should take your child to the GP to check which kind of conjunctivitis your child has and how to treat it.
Impetigo is caused by a bacteria and is highly contagious. Impetigo (or ‘school sores’) usually starts as flat, red spots or small blisters on any part of your child’s body. These spots are especially common around the face, hands and legs. The spots might fill up with yellow or green pus, burst or crust over. The blisters are very itchy.
If you think your child has impetigo, you should take her to the GP, because she needs antibiotics. This will usually be either a medicine for her to swallow or ointment to put on the sores.
Hand, foot and mouth disease
Hand, foot and mouth disease is a mild and harmless viral infection. It causes small blisters on the inside of the mouth, sides of the tongue, palms of the hands, soles of the feet and in the groin. These aren’t itchy. You can help prevent the spread of this infection with careful handwashing.
These tiny parasites attach themselves to children’s hair, lay eggs and cause lots of scratching and itching. They’re most common when children start socialising in groups at preschool or school. The best way to remove lice is with a fine-toothed lice comb and lots of cheap conditioner.
Children in this age group often get worms. Symptoms include an itchy or red bottom. Worms are easy to treat with antiparasitic tablets that you can buy over the counter from your local pharmacy. You should treat everyone in the family at the same time. You can help prevent the spread of worms with careful handwashing. You might also need to wash your child’s clothes and bed linen in hot soapy water every day for several days after treatment.
A wart is a small, flesh-coloured, raised growth. You mostly see them on children’s hands. Warts are usually painless. They can spread, so you should explain to your child that he shouldn’t pick at or chew them. See your GP if the wart is on your child’s face, feet or genitals, or if the wart looks red, hot and painful.
Allergies happen when your child’s immune system reacts to substances in the environment (‘allergens’) that are normally harmless to most people – for example, foods, insect stings, dust mites, animals or pollen. Many children have non-food allergies to ordinary things in our homes and environment.
Very few young children have food allergies. Food intolerances are more common, but they’re not the same as allergies. If you’re not sure why your child is having a reaction, and there’s a possibility it could be caused by a food allergy, it’s best to consult your doctor. Read more in our article on recognising and managing food allergies and intolerances.
Asthma can sound like a whistling wheeze when your child breathes out. Your child might also be short of breath either during physical activity or while she’s resting, or might cough during physical activity. If you think your child has asthma, see your doctor about a management plan.
Video Viral and bacterial infections in children
This short video is about the incidence and treatment of infections in babies and children. It features paediatrician Dr Con James talking about the differences between viral infections and bacterial infections. He explains how often urinary tract infections happen in children. He also describes the causes of and treatments for pneumonia, meningitis and dermatitis.
Serious child health issues
Children aged 1-5 years show similar signs of serious illness. These can include drowsiness, pale or blue skin, difficulty breathing, unresponsiveness and seizures.
Young children’s symptoms can get worse very quickly, so always see your GP if you’re worried about your child’s health.
Video Signs of serious illness
This short video features paediatrician Dr Con James discussing the signs of serious illness in babies and young children. He says you should always seek medical advice from a GP or hospital when you think there's a problem or when children are very unwell.
Child health tips
Make sure immunisations are up to date
Immunisation protects your child and your community against diseases like measles and diphtheria, which are potentially serious – and even life threatening. Your child can be immunised by your GP or at a baby health centre at 12 months, 18 months and 24 months.
Some government parenting payments like the Family Tax Benefit Part A supplement are payable only when your child is up to date with immunisations.
Don’t give unprescribed medications
Normal household medicine can be deadly. That’s why it’s important not to give any medication to your child unless it’s prescribed by a doctor or recommended by a pharmacist. Also make sure that you give your child the right dose for his age. Check the dosage instructions on the box or bottle, which are usually based on weight or age. Some herbal remedies can also be dangerous, so it’s best to check with a doctor to be safe.
You can read more about medications for children.
Keep your child’s air clean
Second-hand smoke can cause serious health risks to non-smokers. If someone in your house smokes, you can protect your child by making sure people always smoke outside. Third-hand smoke is the toxins that stay on the surface in the area where someone has been smoking. This includes on clothes, in hair, on furniture and on the hair.
Also avoid using chemical household sprays, like insect repellent or cleaning products, when your child is in the room.
Hygiene is important for anyone taking care of children and is one of the most effective ways we have to protect ourselves – and others – from illness.
Hygiene is especially important if you’re taking your toddler swimming. Make sure to wash your child thoroughly (especially her bottom) with soap and water to avoid germs in the swimming pool.
Slip, slop, slap, seek and slide
Keep your child safe in the sun and prevent sunburn by:
- slipping on protective clothing
- slopping on SPF 30 or higher broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen
- slapping on a broad-brimmed hat
- seeking shade
- sliding on wraparound sunglasses.
Brush twice a day
Good dental health is vital to your child’s general health. Brush your child’s teeth twice a day – morning and night. Just use water on the toothbrush until your child is 18 months old (unless a dentist tells you otherwise). At 18 months, you can start using a pea-sized amount of low-fluoride toothpaste.
You can help your child avoid tooth decay by making sure he goes easy on sugary food and drink.