Children pick up a lot from school, from academics to social behaviours. On top of these, they also pick up some things that can keep them out of school — these three common illnesses. Now that the academic year has begun, what can we do to keep our young ones safe from them? Or can we? As Dr Chester Lan from DTAP Clinic tells us, these conditions are perennial, and are part and parcel of growing up. But there’s no need to get overly worried.
“Think of it this way: a child’s immune system is new compared to adults. They have not been exposed to these infections yet. Furthermore, a child’s immune system is usually also not as robust or strong as compared to an adult’s. In addition, they have close proximity with hundreds of other children in school,” Dr Lan explains.
All these mean that such infections are always going to be common in children. So perhaps it would be a better tactic to know how to deal with them.
3 common illnesses children get in school
The common cold
Several types of viruses, including rhinoviruses, adenoviruses, and enteroviruses, cause the common cold. They often have with similar symptoms as COVID-19, such as cough, runny rose, sore throat, and fever. Hence your child should get a PCR swab for COVID-19 as long as they have acute upper respiratory symptoms. The common cold can be treated with symptomatic medications and tender loving care. Most children will get better in a week or less.
Gastroenteritis (stomach flu)
This can be caused by viruses such as rotavirus and norovirus. Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, and fever. Most cases are easily treated with symptomatic medications, tender loving care, and lots of fluids. Do note though, that other more dangerous conditions such as appendicitis have similar symptoms.
(See also: Gastroenteritis in Babies and Children)
Hand foot and mouth disease (HFMD)
HFMD is most commonly caused by coxsackie virus. This can show up as a rash on your child’s hands and feet. It may be accompanied by a fever, sore throat and mouth ulcers as well. The treatment is usually symptomatic in nature.
These three conditions are caused by viral infections and are usually self-limiting. Your child will often feel better with symptomatic medications. But in some cases, children may get very unwell, or another more virulent infection (such as influenza or bacterial gastroenteritis) may be causing similar symptoms. Seek medical attention if your child is feeling under the weather, so that a doctor can assess if they require step-up care.
Are these unique to children in Singapore?
These affect children all over the world. They spread mostly through respiratory droplets and fecal-oral routes (such as soiled hands). Some children may fall sick every other month, while others are rarely ill. As long as children are out and about, they are at risk of contracting such infections.
Which common illnesses are more often seen in each age group?
HFMD is usually more common in preschoolers, but children in primary school and even adults can get it too. The common cold and gastroenteritis are common in all age groups.
There are some other conditions that may affect only certain children if they are prone. For example, flare ups of asthma, eczema and allergic rhinitis are not infectious or contagious, but are due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
It is also important that parents take note of their children’s mental health. Our children grow up in a high stress environment, and depression and anxiety can manifest easily, especially in teenagers. Regular communication and interaction with your child and strong family support can help mitigate some of these stressors.
How can we avoid having our children fall ill with these?
I am sure you have realised that your children tend to fall sick less during the school holidays. This is because exposure to other people is a risk factor to catching these illnesses. However it is not possible to isolate your child from the rest of the world. This would be detrimental to their social and mental wellbeing.
(See also: Do you have Parental Burnout?)
How can we reduce our children’s risk of contracting these common illnesses?
- Teach your child about hygiene early on. Keeping their hands clean with hand washing, avoiding touching the face unnecessarily, taking precautions around friends and family who are sick, and covering their face with a tissue paper or elbow when coughing or sneezing are some ways to reduce infection risk.
- Keeping the immune system healthy is important as well. You can do this by encouraging plenty of exercise and physical activity, introducing your children to a healthy balanced diet, enforcing adequate sleep time, and stress reduction and management.
- Ensure that your children and family members are vaccinated for conditions such as influenza and other recommended vaccines according to the National Immunisation Schedule.
- You should also keep your children at home when they are sick, to minimise exposing other children to such infections.
With COVID in the picture, what additional precautions should we should take?
The same precautions about hygiene and keeping the body healthy can also help with infections such as COVID. Current guidelines in Singapore require any person with symptoms of acute respiratory tract infections to get a PCR swab and self-isolate. Do remember to get your vaccines and booster shots as well, practice safe-distancing, and wear a mask properly when around others.
Might getting sick be good for the kids?
There are obvious downsides to a child being sick – missed school and lessons, fewer interactions with friends and family, stress and worry for parents, and financial cost of medical care. But occasional minor illnesses are part of life. Use the opportunity to educate your child about common illnesses and how to reduce spread.
For children, being sick can be scary as they do not have as much experience with it compared to adults. Hence it is important for you to remain positive when your child is ill. This can help minimise their fear and anxiety.
Reassure your child that once he or she is well, things will return back to normal. Some people may view illnesses as “training” for the body and immune system, but it is paramount that parents spot when their child is very unwell and seek medical attention. In general, with time and age, these infections will occur less often.
Dr Chester Lan is the resident doctor at DTAP Clinic. He graduated from the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, the National University of Singapore with a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery. Dr Lan is also a member of the Royal College of Surgeons Edinburgh and also holds a Graduate Diploma in Family Medicine. He believes in holistic care individualised to each patient, and sees patients from all age groups over a variety of sub-specialties.