It’s Just a Matter of Time: Toddlers and Illnesses
Depending on your family situation, your baby may have escaped his or her first year without any illness. It is unlikely that your toddler will do the same. Toddlers can walk, and they can pick things up and put them in their mouths. They are perfectly suited to catch viruses from other people. Any child who interacts with other children in daycare, preschool, or at family gatherings will catch something. During the winter, it is usually respiratory viruses. This means a cold and/or cough. During the summer it is often a “stomach flu” or gastroenteritis. Normal children catch six viral infections per year.
If your child has had their vaccines, there are lots of things they won't catch. It is very easy to think that illnesses like measles, mumps, and whooping cough are things of the past. In fact, in areas where parents have chosen to forego vaccination and there are a lot of children without immunity, those diseases do come back, and make children very ill with lots of complications.
If your toddler does catch a cold or respiratory illness, there are lots of general things to do that might make him or her feel more comfortable. Tylenol® or ibuprofen (never aspirin) can be used in the appropriate dose. Not only will that lower a fever, it will relieve some of the aches and pains of a viral infection. Cough and cold medicines are no longer recommended for toddlers, and they are not sold for toddlers. The component medications have proved dangerous for small children. This may be frustrating if you used these medicines in the past.
You can, however, use nasal saline spray or drops. You can also use the bulb syringe that most likely came home with you from the hospital, or you can buy one. The younger your child, the better this works. You spray the saline into each side of his or her nose and then you suck out the mucous with the bulb syringe. If you can do this, you can relieve a lot of congestion.
Vaporizers are very important for children with respiratory illnesses. You want a machine that puts steam in the air. It does not matter if it is cold or hot, just wet. The inside of your home can get very dry during the winter if you use a heater. When your nose, throat and breathing passages are sick, drying them out makes them feel much worse. Especially if your toddler is coughing, you need to run a vaporizer. Croup is one illness marked by the cough. If you have heard it you will remember – your child barks like a seal. Steam will often calm the cough. If you don't have a vaporizer, steam up the bathroom and have your child sit with you inside the room.
You need to know how to take your child's temperature. You will have learned this, hopefully, when he or she was a baby. You can use a rectal thermometer or an ear thermometer. The strips on the forehead are not accurate and most toddlers cannot hold a thermometer under the tongue. There is much more information available on taking temperatures and what constitutes a fever.
In the summer, you may be dealing with a toddler with vomiting and diarrhea. Gastroenteritis is contagious by the fecal-oral root, which means their dirty hands have gotten into their mouths.
The symptoms of gastroenteritis are nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. This viral infection usually runs its course quickly. There are no specific medications used to treat it. While your child will not want to eat, you want to offer them frequent, small amounts of liquid to try and keep them from getting dehydrated. Your pediatrician may have a specific recommendation; usually Pedialyte® is preferred. Even if liquid stays in the stomach for 20 minutes or so before your child throws up, some of it will get into his system.
You can use Tylenol® for fever, but not ibuprofen. There are suppositories made from the same medicine, acetaminophen, which can help if there is more vomiting than diarrhea. Usually lowering the fever helps a little with the vomiting.
If your child seems to be getting dehydrated, with less wet diapers and a dry looking mouth, seems listless, or cannot keep anything down at all, you may need to take him to the doctor. There are medications for vomiting but most doctors will try not to use them in toddlers because of side effects. Most children will recover in a day or two, holding only small amounts of fluid down at first but more later.
The final important recommendation about toddlers and illnesses is for you to try not to catch everything they have. Hand washing with soap and warm water is the key, especially after changing diapers or wiping noses. You won't be able to avoid everything, but you can try and limit how often you get sick.