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From Ear Infections to the Flu – Childhood Infections are Common

April 6, 2021

Childhood infections and illnesses – most parents have been there. Whether it’s a phone call from the school because their child is not feeling well, waking up in the middle of the night with a child crying and pulling on an ear, or cleaning up after a baby who has just been sick, it’s a familiar scene. Unfortunately, children aren’t immune to illnesses and injuries, no matter how hard parents try to protect them. These ear infections, infected cuts and scrapes, even childhood diseases like chickenpox are all infections that will probably pass without lasting effects.

Most of these infections will go away with treatment or by managing the symptoms. But every so often, one can cause sepsis, a medical emergency. Every day, more than 200 children in the U.S. are diagnosed with severe sepsis. That equals 75,000 children each year. Sadly, sepsis causes more deaths among children than all childhood cancers combined.

Secondary infections may be the culprit

Sepsis isn’t always triggered by an initial infection, but by a secondary one instead. This is an infection that occurs because of the first one. For example, chickenpox causes intense itching, which makes children want to scratch. Scratching breaks the skin, leaving an opening for a bacterial infection and this infection can lead to sepsis.  

Parents and guardians can be prepared to help children reduce infections in the first place, or treat infections as soon as they notice the signs, to keep the infections from worsening, thus reducing the risk of sepsis.

Common childhood infections

Colds and croup

Most common childhood infections don’t progress to anything serious, like sepsis. The most frequent childhood infection is the common cold, a viral infection. Children who go to daycare and school are exposed to many others who may also be sick, but children who are at home can still catch colds from parents, siblings, friends, and anyone else they come in contact with.

A cold itself is more uncomfortable than serious, but it can lead to other infections that could be more severe, like croup.

Croup affects mostly younger children. About 3% of children between 6 months and 3 years old develop the illness at some point. Croup also causes many hospitalizations – as many as 7% of children under 5 years old admitted to the hospital with a fever or difficulty breathing have croup.

The viral respiratory infection causes swelling around the voice box (larynx), windpipe (trachea), and bronchial tubes. Croup symptoms include a barking cough that worsens when the child is crying, fever, and noisy breathing.

Croup doesn’t usually trigger sepsis unless there is a secondary bacterial infection, but it can cause difficulty breathing, which can very quickly become life threatening. If your child develops any of these symptoms, seek emergency medical help:

  • High-pitched sounds while breathing
  • Drooling
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Rapid breathing (faster than usual)
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Change in skin color (bluish, pale)
  • Bluish fingernails

Impetigo

A common and highly infectious bacterial skin infection, impetigo is caused by group A Streptococcus and Staphylococcus aureus. Children aged 2 to 5 years are most likely to get impetigo, but it can happen at any age, particularly during the warm, humid summer months. There are more than 3 million cases of impetigo in the U.S. every year.

Impetigo sores start out as itchy red spots, usually on the hands or feet, and/or the face. The sores start to blister and ooze, forming a yellow/brown crust.

Impetigo itself is rarely dangerous, although it should be treated with antibiotics as soon as possible because it is very contagious and could lead to a more serious skin infection called cellulitis, which can cause sepsis. The bacteria that cause impetigo can also affect the kidneys.

Strep throat

Strep throat, also caused by group A Streptococcus, is another common infection, particularly among teens. While all children get a sore throat from time to time, the pain from a strep throat infection is particularly painful. Symptoms include:

  • A sore throat, often described as “swallowing shards of glass,” or “the worst sore throat ever”
  • Swollen lymph glands on either side of the neck
  • Red and white patches at the back of the throat
  • Enlarged tonsils
  • Fever
  • Skin rash

Strep throat can cause complications, like rheumatic fever and sepsis.

Influenza

Every year as the seasonal flu season makes its rounds, thousands of children contract the infection, often from school or other activities where they spend a lot of time indoors. Most will feel better within a week or so, but sometimes the flu can trigger sepsis.

Influenza is largely preventable through the annual flu vaccine programs. Each year, researchers work to identify the predominant influenza strains that are circulating in order to create a vaccine. Some years, the vaccines are more effective than others. However, if people who are vaccinated still become ill with the flu, they are usually less ill than someone who has not been vaccinated.

Some signs and symptoms of the flu include:

  • Fever
  • Body aches
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Coughing
  • Runny or stuffy nose

Infected cuts and scrapes

Cuts and scrapes are prime for infections. The skin has broken and there is room for bacteria to get in and cause problems. For the most part, keeping a wound clean and dry will prevent infection, but if an infection does occur, it’s important to get it treated as quickly as possible.

Infections in a cut, scrape, burn, insect bite, or any other type of break in the skin could cause:

  • Spreading redness on the skin around the wound
  • Pus or other discharge from the wound
  • Increasing pain in the area
  • Swelling around the wound
  • Fever

Reducing childhood infections risk

We have learned over the past year, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, about the importance of good hand hygiene. This is one of the major ways to help reduce the spread of any type of infection that spreads by touch. Children are also protected from many illnesses when they receive vaccines, such as DTaP (against diphtheria, whooping cough, and tetanus) and MMR (mumps, measles, and rubella).

But we also know that not all infections can be prevented. So if your child does become ill or injured, watch for signs of worsening illness or infection. If your child is not improving or gets worse, see your doctor as soon as possible or bring your child to an urgent care clinic or emergency room. If your child is showing any signs of sepsis, call 911 and say, “I’m concerned about sepsis.”