Respiratory illnesses are very common, particularly in children. Children are still building up their immunity to common viruses and bacteria that can cause problems. Family Doctors Plus GP Dr Pete Bowstead writes about some of the more common respiratory illnesses affecting children and what you can do…
As we breathe our respiratory tract (nose, throat, and lungs) lets air in and carbon dioxide out. Breathing is essential, yet it is also an easy point of entry for viruses and bacteria that can cause illness. Younger lungs can be more vulnerable to infection and can lead to serious complications such as breathing difficulties and widespread infection. In most cases, however, mild infections can be treated at home.
Below I’ve listed 10 common childhood respiratory conditions that may impact your child at some point. There are many more, so it is important you seek help from your GP or paediatrician for any symptoms that linger or seem to get worse over time. Red flags indicating a child should be seen by a doctor include fast or difficulty breathing, turning blue at the lips, being limp, having chest pain, having severe light-headedness when walking around the house or if they develop a rash.
If you are concerned about an emergency call Triple Zero (000) for an ambulance or go to your nearest emergency department. In QLD, 13HEALTH (13 432 584) is a great resource to help determine when a child should be seen. During business hours our clinic at Family Doctors Plus Windsor offers in-person appointments for children with respiratory symptoms – bookings can be made online or by calling reception.
Common childhood respiratory illnesses
The Common Cold (upper respiratory tract infection)
The common cold is caused by a virus and can occur in children six to eight times a year. Symptoms usually include a runny nose, sore throat, coughing, sneezing, headache and body aches. Adults usually don’t develop a fever but kids may develop a slight one. Colds usually clear up in a few days. Resting and drinking plenty of fluids can help your child feel better faster. Using a saline flush such as FLO to clear nasal passages can also help relieve symptoms.
Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)
RSV is the most common cause of respiratory and breathing infections in children. The virus causes infection of the lungs and breathing passages and it is a frequent cause of the common cold. Most children under two years old have been infected by RSV at some stage, and it’s possible to get it again and again. Symptoms include a runny nose, coughing, wheezing and fever. RSV can also trigger asthma symptoms.
Influenza is a viral illness, often milder in children. Symptoms include a runny nose, fever, sore throat and muscle aches. Most often the illness can be treated at home. Children over 6 months of age are recommended to have influenza vaccine every year – provided for free under the National Immunisation Program up to age 5 or later for kids with some medical conditions. To book for influenza vaccine this year, contact us at Family Doctors Plus.
Asthma is a chronic condition that causes the airways to become swollen and narrowed. It can cause wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath often at night or early morning. Though the causes of asthma are not completely understood, it is linked to the immune system and is often diagnosed in childhood. Most children do “grow out” of asthma, while for others long-term management and medication is needed. Severe asthma attacks can be fatal without treatment – seek advice if your child has any of the red flag signs above.
Sinusitis (in the sinuses)
Also called a sinus infection, sinusitis is when the tissue that lines the sinuses swells or becomes inflamed. Fluid can build up behind the nose and eye and lead to infection. It is often linked to a cold or flu or can be triggered by allergies.
Rhinitis (in nose)
Rhinitis is inflammation and swelling of the mucous membrane of the nose, characterised by a runny nose and stuffiness. Chronic rhinitis is long term, lasting more than four weeks and acute rhinitis lasts a few days or up to four weeks. Most often acute rhinitis is caused by viral infection and chronic rhinitis is caused by allergies.
Bronchitis (in the larger airways that lead into the lungs)
Bronchitis is inflammation of the large breathing tubes in the lungs, called the bronchi. It may develop after having had a cold or the flu. A constant cough is a classic symptom that can linger for three or four weeks after the virus has cleared. In addition to a chesty cough, symptoms may include a runny nose, chest pain, congestion, fever and chills, tiredness, wheezing and sore throat. Symptoms are similar in adults and children, though children are more likely to swallow mucus instead of coughing it up. Sometimes bronchitis is mistaken for asthma. Treatment focuses on easing symptoms.
Bronchiolitis (in the smaller airways in the lungs)
Bronchiolitis is a viral infection that causes airway inflammation in a young child’s lungs. Symptoms are similar to a cold and can also include some breathing difficulties with wheezing.
Croup is usually caused by a virus that causes swelling in the trachea (windpipe) and larynx (voice box). Swelling prevents the free flow of air into the lungs and creates a sort of squeaking or high-pitched wheezing sound when taking a deep breath in. A child’s voice may sound huskier than usual as well. Croup tends to affect children under the age of four. Treatment such as breathing humidified air may help ease breathing, particularly at night, but in severe cases, your child may need steroids prescribed by a GP. This would bring the inflammation down and make breathing easier.
Strep Throat is quite common in children and because it is caused by a bacterial infection, it is usually treated with antibiotics. Strep should be 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. A fever and a red throat, or swollen lymph nodes are signs to look for.
Can affect people of all ages. Symptoms may differ in different people and can include fever, malaise, fatigue, sore throat, cough, a snotty nose, loss of sense of smell or taste. The only way to differentiate COVID from other viruses is by doing a COVID test. If your child is under the age of 4 months, has moderate or severe symptoms, has a chronic illness e.g. asthma, lung issues, or is immunosuppressed it is essential you contact your GP if you suspect your child may have COVID (even if they have a negative RAT but you still suspect it may be COVID). For more information on COVID and more please go to Kids Health Information: Fact sheets (rch.org.au).
Other lung conditions
Children can also be affected by other less common respiratory conditions. These include hereditary conditions such as cystic fibrosis, pneumonia, or problems associated with lifestyle factors such as sleep apnoea. Children born prematurely can be more prone to respiratory conditions if they were born before their lungs fully developed.
- Raising Children Network contains some resourceful information about respiratory illnesses. Kids Health also has some great resources about fever in children and pain relief in children.
If you are concerned your child might have asthma or another respiratory condition, then you should see a doctor. Make an appointment with Family Doctors Plus on 07 3357 8192. It is also important to make an appointment with your GP to get advice on managing asthma, treating respiratory infections, or a diagnosis for respiratory symptoms.
Please talk to your GP to discuss treatment options. In most cases if your child is aged over two and otherwise healthy then rest, hydration (filtered or cooled boiled water) and paracetamol may be given (according to instructions). If symptoms are more serious other treatments may be recommended. If your child is under two years old, avoid giving over-the-counter medicines to your child. Your doctor will advise of treatment or provide a prescription.
Aspirin warning: Fevers are generally a sign of a viral infection, so if your child has a fever, please do not give them aspirin. Never use aspirin or any medication that contains aspirin to treat viral illnesses such as the flu, a cold, or chickenpox in children. The use of aspirin in treating viral infections has been associated with Reye syndrome, a potentially fatal condition. If in doubt, please talk to your GP for guidance.
The most important approach to respiratory illnesses is prevention. Follow these simple tips to reduce the transmission of common illnesses:
- Cover your cough or sneeze as these conditions are typically transmitted via coughs and sneezes. Preferably use your elbow to cover your cough or a tissue rather than a bare hand.
- Wash your hands frequently 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 as they are common entry points for viruses to enter the body.
- Limit contact with sick people. As much as you can, avoid contact with other people who are sick. This also means keeping a sick child home from school.
- Get vaccinated against the flu each year. This reduces the risk of contracting pneumonia or being hospitalised.