Have you ever noticed that young children often sneeze and cough during the winter months? Even adults may frequently experience these symptoms when the weather shifts to the cold season. Though quite common, these can actually be early signs of some serious respiratory illnesses which may put our young children, most especially babies, at risk.
Why Is Winter Season A “Colds Season”?
Colds are not caused by the winter breeze or the snowballs our children play with. Respiratory illnesses are brought about by viruses and bacteria which can be passed on from one person to another. Though we can catch a cold or any other respiratory tract infection anytime of the year, it has been a usual trend that the incidence rate for these illnesses seems to peak during the winter season. Why is that so?
Researchers came up with possible reasons as to why respiratory illnesses are prevalent during the winter months:
- Exposure to low environmental temperature lowers the core temperature of the body.
- Inhalation of cold air makes the blood vessels in the respiratory tract constrict or narrow down.
- Extremely cold weather may cause “cold stress”.
These factors may negatively affect the normal defenses of the respiratory tract, lowering the immune system function which makes a person more vulnerable to catch an infection.
Another contributory factor is that children are most likely to stay indoors during this time. When a family member catches a virus or bacteria, he/she can carry it home and all the rest, especially young ones, are at risk of getting infected as well. The same principle holds true with enclosed classrooms and workplaces as they become a conducive environment for the spread of infection.
Who Are At Risk?
Young children, especially those below two years of age are among the most susceptible group. Immediately see your pediatrician if your child falls into the following categories of pre-disposing conditions for they may need to take special precautions:
- Premature infants
- Chronic lung diseases
- Chronic heart ailments (like Congestive Heart Failure)
- Neuro-muscular disorders (especially those who have difficulty clearing out mucus)
- Conditions that weaken the immune system (autoimmune disorders or those undergoing chemotherapy)
Common Respiratory Illnesses During Winter
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, common colds are a major reason of absences in schools (for kids) and at work (for adults). In fact, an average adult can get infected around 2 to 3 times a year and young children can even have more incidences.
There are many different virus strains which can cause a cold but among the most common are rhinoviruses. The symptoms of colds may include one or more of the following:
- Sore throat
- Runny nose
- Body aches
Since it is caused by a virus, there is no treatment to drive the cold away. Common colds are usually self- limiting, you’ll just need to offer your child plenty of fluids and enough rest. In most cases, a healthy body recovers in 7 to 10 days. However, those with underlying conditions or very young infants are at risk of getting more serious complications like pneumonia.
Some parents may offer over-the-counter medications for the relief of symptoms, but for very young children, especially infants, it is usually safer to have them first checked by a pediatrician prior to giving them any medications.
2. Influenza (Flu)
Flu resembles cold-like symptoms but tend to be more severe in nature. The symptoms are usually accompanied by fever, chills, extreme body malaise and sometimes, it also affects the gastrointestinal tract giving rise to symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, and stomachache.
Flu is a vaccine-preventable disease. Ask your pediatrician about the availability of flu vaccine to protect not only your child but also your whole family from the devastating effects of flu.
3. Infections Caused By RSV
The Respiratory Syncytial Virus or RSV infections are often mild, with symptoms similar to that of common colds. However, it is one of the most prevalent causes of serious respiratory tract infections among infants with pneumonia (infection of the lungs) and bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small airways).
According to the CDC, infants infected with RSV may show minimal symptoms like irritability, decrease in the level of activity and difficulty in breathing. The following symptoms may also appear gradually:
- Runny nose
- Decreased appetite
- Wheezing (“whistling” sound when breathing)
Being a viral infection, RSV may go away on its own within two weeks or less. Healthy individuals are able to manage the symptoms on their own, however, infants (especially those under 6 months of age) need to seek prompt medical attention for appropriate management. Keeping your child hydrated is also a must.
Sinusitis usually follows a common cold; sinusitis is the inflammation of the lining of the sinuses. Sinuses are small and air-filled cavities around the nasal passages, which are located behind our cheekbones and forehead. When the lining of the sinuses become swollen due to a viral infection, the mucus is unable to drain properly towards the nose. This gives rise to the following symptoms:
- A green or yellow discharge from the nose
- Stuffy nose
- Pain in the cheeks, eyes or forehead
- A sinus headache
- Fever usually 38 degrees Celsius (100.4F) and above
- Child becomes irritable
- Breathing through the mouth
- Difficulty feeding
Symptoms of sinusitis are usually manageable from home and may fade away within two to three weeks. Over-the-counter medications for pain relief and nasal decongestants often ease away the symptoms. Saline solutions may be used to clean the nose. However, prior to giving these medications to young children and infants, it is always best to bring them to the doctor to determine whether they really have a sinus infection or not. Warm compress may also help relieve the pain and tenderness around the affected area.
Asthma is a chronic condition which involves the inflammation of the bronchial tubes which serves as the passageway of air coming in and out of the lungs. Asthma attacks happen when a certain “trigger” enters the airways and cause an inflammatory response. Triggers include dust, pollens, strong scent, an inhaled powder, smoke or any other particle that a person may be allergic to. Asthma can also be triggered by food, a heavy physical activity, or a recent respiratory tract infection.
The symptoms of an asthma attack include:
- Shortness of breath
- Rapid breathing
- Chest pain
Asthma has a genetic predisposition, meaning if the condition runs in your family, it is likely your child will develop asthma, too. There is no cure for asthma, but there is a treatment plan that can help alleviate the symptoms of corticosteroid therapy and preventive plan to avoid the triggers. If your child is previously diagnosed with asthma and is currently showing signs of a respiratory tract infection, then you must bring him/her to the doctor for an early intervention.
6. Sore Throat
A sore throat is usually prevalent during the winter months. It is characterized by itchiness and pain on the linings of the throat. A sore throat is most often associated with tonsillitis, the inflammation of the tonsils (small glands situated at the back of the throat). A sore throat may be caused by a viral or bacterial infection.
A sore throat can be very irritating and may affect a child’s appetite. If the tonsils are too swollen and the infection got worse, it may also cause a high fever (may reach up to 39 degrees Celsius).
Though a sore throat is manageable most of the time, children with high fever and difficulty in feeding may need to seek medical attention promptly. Sore throat of bacterial origin will need antibiotic therapy for the fast recovery of the child.
Additional Tips To Avoid Winter Respiratory Illnesses
1. Avoid bringing your kids to crowded places.
If possible, leave young children at home if you’re going to public places where there are a lot of people who can be potential sources of a virus or bacteria.
2. Offer enough fluids and good nutrition.
Disease-causing microorganisms are everywhere. The best way to prevent your children from getting sick is to keep them healthy. Having enough immune defenses, viruses and bacteria will find it hard to invade their bodies.
3. Practice proper hand washing.
Did you know that certain respiratory diseases spread through hand-shaking or even by simply touching a contaminated doorknob? Hence, hand washing is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of diseases. Practice proper hand washing technique, as per WHO guidelines, and teach this to your young ones. Proper hand washing will take finishing the “Happy Birthday Song” twice.
- Wet your hands with clean water.
- Rub soap into your hands until it forms a full lather.
- Scrub your hands together palm to palm with fingers interlaced.
- Scrub the right palm on the left dorsum the alternately on the right dorsum.
- Interlock your fingers and scrub the nail tips on the opposite palm.
- Rub each finger in a rotational manner.
- Rinse your hands thoroughly.
- Wash the faucet or use a paper towel to turn it off.
4. Avoid the spread of diseases.
If you suspect that you have symptoms of a respiratory infection, take necessary precaution to avoid spreading it in your home.
- Avoid having close contact with infants and young kids. This includes kissing or hugging your kids, if possible. Don’t worry because it is just a temporary preventive measure and you can always cuddle them by the time you fully recover.
- Make use of disposable masks to cover your nose and mouth.
- Dispose your used paper towels, tissues or masks properly into a closed garbage bin.
- Wash your hands before and after handling things around the house.
Winter respiratory illnesses are common but they can be prevented and managed to keep your children healthy the entire cold season. The article talks about the general information and tips to help you manage some of the most common respiratory illnesses from home. However, if symptoms persist, never hesitate to pay your pediatrician a visit.
This article is for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Always consult with a doctor or licensed medical professional before making any medical decisions.