It may seem like your child is always sick. That’s because young children are exposed to many new germs (viruses or bacteria) and haven’t yet built up enough defenses against them. Most young children will have 8 to 10 colds a year. The good news is that most of these infections are mild and won’t last very long. As children get older, they get sick less often.
How infections spread
Most infections are spread by hands. Infections can spread easily because children touch their nose, eyes and mouth, put things in their mouth, and touch each other often when playing.
The germs that affect young children usually spread in one of the following ways:
- Direct contact with the infected person, who has germs in the nose, mouth, eyes, stool or on the skin. Direct contact includes kissing, touching or holding hands with a person who has the illness.
- Indirect contact with the infected person, who may spread germs by touching or mouthing an object—a toy, a doorknob, a used tissue—that is then touched by another person. The germs can cause infection when that person—who now has germs on their hands—touches their eyes, nose or mouth. Some germs, including those that cause colds and diarrhea, can stay on surfaces for many hours.
An adult can also spread germs from one child to another without realizing it. For example, if you’re changing a diaper or helping your child use the toilet, you may come into contact with stool (poop) that has germs in it. If you don’t wash your hands well afterward, you may pass these germs to another child.
- “Droplets transmission” is very common. Germs in the nose and throat can spread through *droplets* when the infected person coughs or sneezes without a tissue to cover the mouth and nose. Droplets travel though the air and can reach another person who is close by (less than a metre away). These germs don’t stay in the air and don’t travel over long distances.
- “Airborne spread” is much less common. This happens when germs stay in the air and are carried around on air currents. These germs can infect people who are not close to the infected person and may even be in a different room. Chickenpox and measles viruses spread this way. These germs are hard to control. The best way to protect your child is with vaccines against these infections.
Common childhood infections
|Symptoms||How it spreads||What parents can do|
|Respiratory Infections (infections of the airway or lungs)|
|Strep throat and scarlet fever||
|Impetigo||Red bumps, blisters, oozing or honey-coloured crusty lesions around the mouth, nose or exposed skin of the face||
Gently wash the infected skin with clean gauze and soap.
|*Stomach flu (“gastro”)*||
* When giving ibuprofen be sure that your child drinks lots of fluid. Do not give ibuprofen to babies children under 6 months without first talking to your doctor.
How can I protect my child?
Washing your hands and your child’s hands is the best thing that you can do to stop the spread of germs. Wash your hands after:
- Coughing or sneezing into your hands or wiping your nose.
- Caring for someone with a respiratory, gastrointestinal infection or skin infection (contact with skin, mouth, nose).
- Cleaning up vomit or diarrhea.
- Wiping your child’s nose.
- Changing a diaper.
- Using the toilet or helping your child to use the toilet.
- Handling pets or animals.
- When your child is old enough, teach her to wash her hands after wiping her nose or using the toilet.
- Wash your hands before preparing or serving food and before eating, and teach your child to do the same.
- If your child has a cough or cold, cover his mouth and nose with tissues when he coughs or sneezes. When he is old enough, teach him to cover his nose and mouth with a tissue when he sneezes or coughs, to put the used tissue in a wastebasket right away, and to wash his hands after. Teach him to cough or sneeze into the curve of his elbow if he does not have a tissue.
- If your child attends child care, tell the caregiver about any symptoms and ask if your child should stay home that day. When both parents work outside the home, plan ahead by making other arrangements for someone to care for your child when he is sick.
- Make sure your child has received all of the recommended immunizations.
What can I do if my child is sick?
When your child is sick, you want them to feel better. Many parents turn to over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold medicines for help. Except for pain and fever drugs, there is no proof that they work. In fact, some of the side effects can make your child feel even worse.
There is also a risk of giving your child too much medication. For example, giving acetaminophen for a fever on top of a cough syrup that already contains acetaminophen. Never use more than one product at the same time unless advised by your doctor.
Do not give OTC medications to babies and children under 6 years old without first talking to your doctor. The only exceptions are drugs used to treat fever (such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen).
When should I call my doctor?
If your child shows any of the following signs:
- Has a fever and is less than 6 months old.
- Has a fever for more than 72 hours.
- Excessive sleepiness.
- Rapid or difficulty breathing.
- Coughing that won’t go away (lasts more than a week) or is severe and causes choking or vomiting.
- Diarrhea and is younger than 6 months of age.
- Bloody or black stools.
- Vomiting for more than 4 hours.
- Dehydration (dry sticky mouth, no urine or fewer than 4 wet diapers in 24 hours).
More information from the CPS:
- Colds in children
- Dehydration and diarrhea
- Influenza in children
- Fever and temperature taking
- Using over-the-counter drugs to treat cold symptoms
Reviewed by the following CPS Committees:
Infectious Diseases and Immunization Committee
Public Education Advisory Committee
Last updated: December 2008