What is a viral infection?
Viruses are tiny organisms that can get into our cells and reproduce. A viral infection can cause a variety of different symptoms depending on the type of virus. You can catch a viral infection at any age, but children are particularly prone because their immune systems are still developing.
Most childhood viral infections are self-limiting, meaning they get better on their own, as the immune system fights off infection. However, sometimes, viruses can cause problems that need medical attention. Here are some common childhood viral infections and symptoms to look out for.
The common cold
This is caused by a virus called rhinovirus and usually lasts for one to two weeks. The symptoms in children are similar to those in adults. Children who have recently started school or nursery often get frequent colds. They're fairly contagious, so often family members will catch them too.
If your child has difficulty breathing, or you're concerned about them, ask your Doctor for advice or contact emergency services.
Flu is caused by the influenza virus, which can be very unpleasant in children. The children's flu vaccination helps protect them against flu. This is usually offered as a nasal spray, given as a single squirt of liquid into each nostril, so no injections are needed. Few children may not be able to have the nasal spray flu vaccine, due to certain medical conditions or treatments. In this case, the vaccination needs to be given as an injection. Check with Doctor at your local surgery, if you’re not sure.
Flu in children can appear similar to a cold, but symptoms are more severe and develop much quicker. Flu can also make children less active and more tired. Older children may have tummy aches and achy muscles. If you're concerned your child might have flu, speak to your Doctor.
Bronchiolitis is a viral infection that usually affects children under 18 months of age, but can occur up to two years. It's normally caused by respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and often occurs in winter. Early on in the illness, babies usually have cold-like symptoms, such as a blocked or runny nose, a cough and a slightly high temperature. If your child has a blocked nose, speak to your pharmacist about saline nasal drops. These help clear the nose, making it easier to breathe.
Bronchiolitis is typically worst between days three and five. Symptoms include a dry cough, rapid or loud breathing, difficulty feeding, and a high temperature. Symptoms usually improve within two to three weeks.
If you're concerned about your child or if your child has any of the following symptoms, you should see your Doctor:
- Breathing very rapidly
- Taking less than half of their normal feeds during the last two or three feeds
- No wet nappy for 12 hours
- A persistently high temperature of 38°C or more
If your child looks pale, blue around the lips or tongue, has difficulty breathing, or has long pauses in their breathing, call 999 for an ambulance immediately.
Rashes & viral infection
Viruses can often cause rashes in children. Some features to look out for are:
Non-blanching (petechial) rash
If your child has a red, blotchy rash that does not fade when a glass tumbler is pressed against it, go to your local emergency department or call 999, as this could be a sign of meningitis.
This causes a rash that looks like sunburn and feels like sandpaper. It usually appears on the chest and arms, and children often have headache and a sore throat. This is not caused by a virus, so you should call your Doctor if your child has scarlet fever symptoms, as they may need antibiotics.
Less common now thanks to the MMR vaccination, measles starts with a fever, sore eyes and grey spots on the inside of the cheeks. Children then develop a red-brown rash, which starts in the face and travels down the body. Call your Doctor if you think your child has measles, particularly if they haven't been vaccinated yet.
This rash starts off as red spots, which turn into blisters, then scab over. This gets better on its own and children stop being contagious once the last spot has scabbed over. Antihistamines and simple moisturising lotions may help ease symptoms.
Slapped cheek syndrome
This is a bright red rash that appears on both cheeks, sometimes accompanied by a similar rash on the body two to three days later. It gets better on its own in children but can be dangerous in pregnancy. If you think your child has slapped cheek syndrome, they should avoid close contact with pregnant women. If you're pregnant and you come into contact with someone with slapped cheek syndrome, contact your Doctor for advice.
Hand, foot and mouth disease
This appears as blisters on the hands and feet, and ulcers in the mouth. It gets better on its own, usually within seven to 10 days.
When to seek emergency treatment
You should seek urgent medical advice if:
- Your child is less than three months old with a temperature of 38°C or higher, or between three and six months old with a temperature of 39°C or higher
- Your child seems dehydrated (for example, their nappies are drier than usual)
- Your child seems confused
- Their crying sounds different or more high-pitched
- They've had a fever for more than five days
- They have a high temperature which doesn’t come down with paracetamol or ibuprofen
- You're worried
For the symptoms above, visit your Doctor for advice.
If your child has difficulty breathing, becomes floppy, looks blue or grey particularly around the mouth, shakes uncontrollably or has a non-blanching rash (a rash that doesn't go away when pressed with a glass), call 999 for an ambulance or go to your closest A&E department immediately.
- Viral infections can cause fever and pain, which can respond well to painkillers like paracetamol. Not all painkillers are suitable for everyone, so ask your pharmacist for advice
- If you're worried about your child, visit a doctor as soon as possible