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What Is A Viral Infection?

How Do Viral Infections Affect Your Children?

Camille Freking, MS Pharmacology Profile Photo

Written by Camille Freking, MS Pharmacology on December 15, 2021

If your child seems to be constantly battling some type of illness or another, you’re in good company. Children contract many contagious diseases during their early years largely because their immune systems are still developing, they spend most of their time in close proximity to other kids, and they may not wash their hands as often as you’d like. Most childhood illnesses are caused by viral infections, but what is a viral infection and how do they affect your children?

What Is a Viral Infection?

Viral infections are infections or diseases that are caused by viruses. Viruses are a microscopic microorganism that can be transferred between people or animals, including from mosquitoes to humans.

Viruses are smaller than other microorganisms like fungi, bacteria, and parasites and are made up of only a tiny amount of genetic material, such as DNA, RNA, or mRNA, and a protective coating of protein.

Viral infections are able to spread when the virus is introduced to a host cell. This begins the lytic cycle of replication, which causes the virus to increase in number and causes a viral infection.

Although infections are often attributed to bacteria, viruses are the cause of many of the most common infections that occur in children and adults, including:

  • The common cold
  • Coronavirus or SARS-COV-2
  • Chickenpox
  • Tonsillitis
  • Influenza
  • Hepatitis C and Hepatitis B
  • Herpes
  • Bronchiolitis
  • Ear infections
  • Yellow fever

Viral infections begin when a virus is spread from host to host. This usually happens when an infected person with the virus coughs, sneezes, or speaks, releasing particles of the virus into the air inside tiny droplets of water. The particles may then be inhaled by an individual nearby, starting the cycle of viral infection.

How Do Viral Infections Affect Children?

Children are considered especially susceptible to viral infections for a number of reasons.

First, children have developing immune systems that may not be able to fight viruses as effectively as adults. Second, children are typically in close proximity to one another throughout the day in various environments, such as daycare or school, which allows viruses to spread more easily. Finally, children are less likely to wash their hands on a regular basis, cover their mouth and nose when they cough or sneeze, or blow their noses into a clean tissue.

Common signs and symptoms of viral illnesses include:

  • Nasal congestion or runny nose
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Sore throat
  • Rashes that turn white when palpated
  • Fever
  • Coughing
  • Loss of appetite
  • Red, watery eyes
  • Sneezing
  • Fatigue or feelings of extreme tiredness


What Are the Most Common Viral Infections in Children?

Children deal with all sorts of illnesses throughout the year, many of which are commonly caused by viruses. The seven viral infections most commonly observed in children are the common cold, hand-foot-and-mouth disease, gastroenteritis, influenza (flu), roseola, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and fifth disease. However, herpes simplex virus (HSV), and rubella are other common viruses.

Common Cold

The average child under the age of five is estimated to come down with approximatelysix to eight colds per year; this number may be higher for children in daycare. While the illness we think of as the common cold is most commonly caused by the rhinovirus family of viruses, the group of symptoms can actually be caused by a number of different viruses.

Symptoms of the common cold vary among children but often include:

  • Tickle in the throat
  • Low-grade fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sore throat
  • Cold sores
  • Cough
  • Headache
  • Tiredness

Cold symptoms typically start to improve after a period of three to five days. If your child is struggling with nasal congestion or dry and painful nasal passages, using a saline nasal spray may be able to help. It’s also important for your child to get plenty of rest. There are no vaccines available for the common cold, which contributes to their prevalence.

Hand-Foot-and-Mouth Disease

Hand-foot-and-mouth disease is a highly contagious viral infection that most commonly affects young children in the summer and fall. This infection is attributed to a virus called the coxsackievirus, which causes characteristic symptoms such as a rash on the hands and feet and painful sores inside the mouth.

Symptoms include:

  • Mouth sores
  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Skin rash
  • Loss of appetite

Hand-foot-and-mouth disease can be very uncomfortable for kids, but it is typically mild and rarely life-threatening. The best way to comfort your child when they are suffering from hand-foot-and-mouth disease is to make sure they drink plenty of fluids and offer acetaminophen for fever or pain if needed.

Gastroenteritis

The most common cause of gastroenteritis, an inflammation of the stomach and intestines, is a viral infection. While the condition can also be attributed to contaminated food, medications, chemical exposure, or infection by bacteria or parasites, gastroenteritis, commonly known as the stomach flu, affects 3 to 5 billion children worldwide each year.

Symptoms include:

  • Vomiting
  • Poor appetite
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Abdominal cramps

Gastroenteritis can be dangerous for kids because it can cause significant dehydration as a result of vomiting and diarrhea. Make sure your child stays hydrated by steadily sipping small amounts of clear liquids throughout the day rather than drinking a large amount. If your child is unable to keep down fluids, seek medical attention from your pediatrician.

Influenza (Flu)

Influenza, also known as the flu, is a common viral infection caused by the influenza family of viruses. This highly contagious disease can be life-threatening, particularly in very young children under the age of two.

The most prevalent strains of influenza vary from year to year and are one of the most common causes of pneumonia in children. Other complications of the flu commonly include ear infections and sinus infections.

Symptoms commonly associated with the flu include:

  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Headache
  • Body aches
  • Cough
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose

The best way to reduce your child’s risk of catching the flu is to make sure that all children over the age of six months receive their annual flu vaccine.


Roseola

Roseola is a viral infection most commonly attributed to a virus known as human herpesvirus 6, but the condition can also be transmitted via enteroviruses found in saliva. Roseola is characterized by a high fever that leads to a rash, and it may take 5 to 15 days for symptoms to appear after infection.

Symptoms commonly associated with roseola include:

  • Fever, often over 103 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Loss of appetite
  • Irritability
  • Rash
  • Mild diarrhea
  • Swollen eyelids

Roseola in young children can cause a dangerously high fever, which may lead to seizures in some children. Seek immediate medical attention if your child’s fever exceeds 103 degrees Fahrenheit.

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)

One of the most common viral infections in children is caused by respiratory syncytial virus, also known as RSV. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), almost every child contracts RSV at some point before the age of two, and the infection can be life-threatening.

Complications of RSV include pneumonia and bronchiolitis in infants, which contributes to approximately 60,000 hospitalizations in the United States each year.

Common symptoms of RSV in children include:

  • Runny nose
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Fever
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Wheezing
  • Irritability

RSV is primarily a concern for very young children, with the risk of a severe episode decreasing substantially by the age of five. Children who are sick with RSV should drink lots of clear fluids like water or pediatric electrolyte drinks and should get plenty of rest to help them recover quickly.


Fifth Disease

Fifth disease is a common viral infection in children that is caused by a virus called parvovirus B19. After incubating for a period of about 15 days, fifth disease commonly appears as a reddish rash on the cheeks before the rash starts to spread.

Symptoms associated with fifth disease include:

  • Rash, which may be itchy or painful
  • Runny nose
  • Fever
  • Painful or swollen joints
  • Headache

Most children who come down with fifth disease will start to feel better in about a week. Symptoms can be improved through the use of acetaminophen and other over-the-counter medications that can help reduce the painful swelling of the joints or fever that may accompany the infection.

Summary

Viral infections are contagious infections caused by microscopic organisms known as viruses. Viral infections are responsible for many of the most common diseases in children, including the common cold, influenza, roseola, gastroenteritis, fifth disease, hand-foot-and-mouth disease, and RSV.

When sick with a viral infection, children may experience a wide range of symptoms, including runny nose, rash, fever, cough, sore throat, vomiting, and diarrhea.



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