As children’s susceptibility to infections soars during
the cold months, precautions are better than cures.
The common cold lives up to its name by infecting almost every person at some time or the other. Termed an upper respiratory infection (URI) in medical parlance, it is the world’s most common lung infection. Children are prone to lung infections, especially during winters. Those under five years are particularly susceptible to winter infections, being afflicted more than half-a-dozen times annually. After the age of six, however, common colds occur less frequently.
Frequency and Impact
Due to the frequency and potency of attacks, the common cold can lead to multiple doctor’s visits and absence from school every year compared to other illnesses. The culprit is a virus inflaming membranes in the nose and throat lining. More than 200-plus viruses can cause the common cold. But rhinoviruses cause most colds in the young and old.
Higher incidents occur in winter because many viruses thrive in low humidity conditions, which also make nasal passages drier, increasing infection vulnerability. Once the virus is in the child’s body, the immune system reacts. This reaction causes increased mucus production (and a runny nose); swelling in the nose lining (causing congestion and difficulty in breathing); bouts of sneezing (due to nasal irritation) and cough (triggered by higher amounts of mucus sliding down the throat).
The other concern in winters regarding children is lower respiratory infections (LRI). The major ailments are bronchitis, pneumonia, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus. If not treated in time, some variants such as pneumococcal pneumonia can be fatal. Also, respiratory symptoms last longer in children than in adults. The common cold could last up to 15 days, acute cough for 25 days and non-specific respiratory symptoms for a fortnight. If any chronic cough occurs daily for more than four weeks, it merits additional check-ups for lung disease.
Worldwide, LRI remains a major morbidity and mortality cause. The Global Burden of Diseases Study 2016 analyses LRI burden in 195 nations. The study reveals LRI led to 652,572 deaths of children below five years, globally, with pneumococcal pneumonia being the prime cause.
Precautions Work Best
While the above statistics sound alarming, simple precautions can help prevent lung infections. Consider pneumonia. Although a bacterial or viral infection can cause pneumonia, getting wet cannot, despite the popular misconception. Consequently, a child’s untreated cold or flu or one that worsens can lead to pneumonia. This happens because the lungs are irritated by a cold or flu, thereby creating an enabling environment and making it easier for an invasion and infection by pneumonia germs. Therefore, any cold or flu should be treated promptly via a doctor’s visit rather than home medications.
Furthermore, the child should stay at home, avoiding school or playing outside since this can spread the infection to others. During winters, children must be well covered in warm garments to avoid exposure. When the temperature dips, the child should wear a cap or hat, while using gloves and socks to protect exposed hands and feet.
Children with cough and colds should be taken to a specialist within 48 hours. Besides, all severe symptoms such as breathlessness, laboured breathing, inability to sleep at night, high fever, chest pain, vomiting after cough and failure to thrive must be referred to a specialist immediately. Symptoms such as drawing of intercostal muscles (pasli chalana) in children need the immediate attention of a doctor.
Respiratory infections can also be prevented by washing hands periodically, using soap and running or warm water. This should be done particularly before touching and eating food and after blowing the nose. Instead of a handkerchief, the child can cough or sneeze into a tissue and then throw this into the dustbin. The mouth should always be covered when coughing or sneezing. The hands should also be kept away from the face. The teeth should be brushed twice daily after meals.
When eating and drinking, cups, glasses or cutlery should not be shared. The child should drink plenty of water and eat fruits as well as vegetables daily since these contain essential nutrients boosting immunity. Moreover, household surfaces should be clean. Over-the-counter medications dispensed by chemists and repeated use of cough syrups should be avoided.
Finally, an annual flu vaccine could also help prevent the disease during winters or monsoons. Following these simple precautions can help reduce lung infections in children – and adults too.