6 Common Winter Illnesses In Kids – And How To Keep Them At Bay

The kids are back at school, nurseries are welcoming new little ones and, as much as we hate to admit it, sickness season is upon us.

Children are notorious for picking up unwanted germs left, right and centre – much to the delight of their poor parents.

But which illnesses in particular should be on your radar this autumn/winter? And is there anything you can do to try and stop your household from coming down with every single lurgy under the sun?

Infections such as flu, norovirus and scarlet fever usually start to rise throughout autumn and winter. So, without further ado, here’s what you need to know about their key symptoms, as well as how to keep them at arm’s length.

1. Common cold

In what will come as no surprise to any parent (or anyone, for that matter), kids can acquire eight or more colds a year. Most of these will get better in five to seven days, according to the NHS, but may take up to two weeks in particularly young children.

According to West Essex Clinical Commissioning Group, symptoms of a cold typically include that tell-tale runny nose (beginning with clear mucus that develops into thicker, green mucus); a blocked nose; sore throat; sneezing and/or a cough.

The UKHSA suggests it’s fine to send your child to school with a minor cough or common cold. But if they have a fever, they should stay off school until the fever has passed.

The best ways to prevent a cold include regular hand-washing with warm water and soap, eating a healthy and balanced diet, getting enough sleep and encouraging your children to avoid touching their eyes and mouth when out and about.

2. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)

RSV is incredibly common among kids and usually causes cold-like symptoms, with most people recovering in a week or two. But in some – particularly the under-ones – it can be serious. Approximately 30,000 babies and children under five are hospitalised every year due to RSV.

Like many other illnesses, it was largely suppressed during the Covid-19 pandemic however cases are rising again. Symptoms typically include a runny nose, decreased appetite, coughing, sneezing, a fever and possibly even wheezing.

Some children with RSV can go on to develop complications such as pneumonia and bronchiolitis. In fact, RSV is the leading cause of bronchiolitis in infants, accounting for around 60-80% of infections.

Parents are urged to call NHS 111 or their GP if their child is struggling to breathe, not drinking enough fluids or is experiencing worsening symptoms.

RSV can be prevented with regular hand-washing and encouraging children to avoid touching their eyes and mouth when out and about.

There isn’t currently a vaccine available on the NHS for RSV, however in June this year, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) advised that an immunisation programme that is cost effective should be developed for both infants and older adults – so, watch this space.

3. Norovirus (winter vomiting bug)

As far as winter bugs are concerned, norovirus is certainly one of the least desirable for all involved – the stomach bug causes a lot of vomiting and diarrhoea. Other symptoms include: a high temperature, headache and aching arms and legs.

If your child has diarrhoea and/or vomits, they should stay off school or nursery for at least 48 hours after their symptoms clear up. It’s important for them to drink lots of fluids to help them recover – the good news is they should start to feel better in two to three days.

Regular hand washing is really important to help stop the spread of the bug – it’s worth remembering alcohol hand gels do not kill off norovirus, so washing with soap and warm water is best.

If your child has norovirus, clean household surfaces with bleach-based household cleaners regularly – we’re talking door handles, toilet flushes, taps, etc., – and wash any contaminated clothing or bedding on a 60°C wash.

4. Scarlet fever

Scarlet fever is caused by Strep A bacteria, which caused a lot of worry among parents last year, after a number of children lost their lives to it.

The contagious infection mostly affects young children and is characterised by a ‘sandpaper’ rash, sore throat, flushed cheeks and swollen tongue.

On white skin the rash looks pink or red. On brown and black skin it might be harder to see a change in colour, but you can still feel the sandpaper effect of the rash and see the raised bumps.

It’s treated with antibiotics which is why it’s best to speak to your GP as soon as possible if you suspect your child has it. This can reduce the chance of more serious illnesses developing, such as pneumonia or meningitis.

The illness lasts for about seven days. Children should be kept away from nursery or school until at least 24 hours after starting antibiotic treatment.

According to Mayo Clinic, the best ways to prevent this illness include: regular hand-washing and teaching your child about the importance of not sharing utensils or food with others (for example, friends at school).

5. Influenza (flu)

Flu is an infectious illness spread from coughs and sneezes – it can also live on hands and surfaces for 24 hours. Lovely.

It can often be mistaken for a cold, however flu symptoms usually come on much more quickly.

According to the NHS, symptoms typically include; a high temperature, aching, feeling tired, a dry cough, sore throat, headache and trouble sleeping. Children can also get ear pain and be less active than usual.

It can also cause gastrointestinal symptoms such as loss of appetite, diarrhoea, vomiting or feeling nauseous.

While flu typically gets better on its own, it can prove nasty – 10,000 children were hospitalised because of it last year, according to the UKHSA.

Complications associated with the illness include painful inflammation inside the ear and pneumonia which can make breathing difficult.

If your child is unwell and has a fever, they should stay home from school or nursery until they feel better, and the fever has resolved.

Health experts suggest the best way to protect kids against serious illness from flu is to vaccinate them. Regular hand-washing is also key.

Children aged 2-3 and school age children are eligible for a free nasal spray vaccine via the NHS, while children aged between six months and two years with a long-term health condition are offered an injection. This is because the nasal spray is not licensed for children under two.

Parents should either receive a phone call from the GP or an electronic or paper consent form from the NHS school immunisation team to book their children in.

6. Covid-19

Yup, it hasn’t gone anywhere. And given we’ll all be spending more time indoors over the cooler months, cases are likely to rise again pretty soon.

In the UK, Pirola, a new variant of Covid, has been found in wastewater and in 36 known cases. The new strain, officially called Covid BA.2.86, was first monitored by the World Health Organisation (WHO) last month.

We don’t know if Pirola is any more contagious, dangerous, or likely to stick around than other variants. However, experts say it’s more mutated than a strain like Eris is from the Omicron strain, which might mean our immune systems are less prepared to deal with it.

Because the variant is so new, we can’t say for sure what the symptoms are. However, Dr Chris Papadopoulos, Principal Lecturer in Public Health at the University of Bedfordshire, has said that a sore throat, a runny nose, a cough (with or without phlegm), and headaches are typical of the strain.

The best ways to prevent Covid-19 from spreading, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), include: practising social distancing in public places, wearing a properly fitted face mask in poorly ventilated settings and practising regular hand washing.