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Common Childhood Illnesses

Below is a summary of the most common childhood illnesses, with the exception of the common cold.

Fifth disease
(erythema infectiosum)
(Parvovirus B19)
Begins with cold- or flu-like symptoms (e.g., fever, headache, runny nose, fatigue, muscle aches).

Followed by bright red cheeks (slapped cheek appearance) then a lace-like rash on the trunk and extremities.

About 25% of cases are asymptomatic.
Spread by hands and objects contaminated with secretions from the infected person.

Airborne secretions.

From mother to child during pregnancy.
Symptoms appear 4 to 28 days after exposure to the virus.

The child is contagious up to 7 days before the rash appears. Once the rash appears, the child is no longer contagious, with the exception of those who are immunocompromised.

Can last up to 3 weeks or more.
No specific treatment.

Outbreaks are most common in the winter and spring.

Heat, sunlight and exercise can exacerbate the rash.

Do not exclude the child from childcare or school if feeling well enough.

Serious complications are rare with fifth disease. However, speak to your doctor if you have any of the following conditions:
  • You are anemic
  • You are immunocompromised
  • You are pregnant
Whooping cough
(Bordetella pertussis)
The infection usually begins with cold-like symptoms and a profuse runny nose. The characteristic cough develops afterwards.

Long coughing spells (often at night)


Crowing or whooping sound
Spread by hands and objects contaminated with secretions from the infected person.

Airborne secretions.

Highly contagious.
Symptoms appear 7 to 10 days (rarely after 14 days) after exposure to the bacteria.

The child is contagious from the onset of the runny nose until 7 days after starting antibiotic therapy or 3 weeks after the first symptoms appear if left untreated. Children younger than 12 months of age may be contagious for up to 6 weeks.

Usually lasts between 6 and 10 weeks.
Serious complications possible. Must be seen by a doctor and treated with antibiotics; close contacts may also require treatment.

The child should get plenty of rest and drink fluids in small amounts, often.

Children who contract a respiratory tract infection over the course of the next year may develop symptoms that resemble whooping cough.

Exclude the child from childcare or school until the end of the infectious period.

The pertussis vaccine is part of the routine immunization schedule. It is possible to get whooping cough more than once, even if the child has been vaccinated. If the child has been vaccinated, the infection is likely to be less severe.
Strep throat and scarlet fever
(Group A beta-hemolytic streptococci)

Sore throat

Nausea and vomiting

Swollen glands in the neck

Rash on the neck, chest and folds of skin that feels like rough sandpaper (scarlet fever)

Strawberry tongue (scarlet fever)
Spread by hands and objects contaminated with secretions from the infected person.

Airborne secretions.
First symptoms appear 1 to 5 days after exposure to the bacteria.

The child is contagious 24 to 48 hours after treatment is initiated. If left untreated, the infectious period may last up to 2 or 3 weeks.

Rarely lasts longer than 7 days.

As the rash fades, the skin may peel.
Antibiotics are needed to prevent complications, shorten the length of the illness, alleviate symptoms and prevent the infection from spreading.

The child should be excluded from childcare or school for the first 24-48 hours after the start of antibiotics.

Outbreaks of scarlet fever are most common in the winter and spring.

Scarlet fever mainly affects children between the ages of 4 and 15 years.

Children should drink plenty of cool fluids and eat soft food.

This illness may be contracted more than once.
Roseola (Exanthem subitum or Sixth disease)
(Human herpesvirus (type 6 or 7), enterovirus, adenovirus)
Starts with high fever (often > 39.5oC) that lasts 3 to 7 days.

Followed by a rosy-pink rash that affects the face, neck and extremities. The rash, which lasts 1 to 3 days, is usually not itchy.
Spread by contact with respiratory secretions or saliva from the infected person.

Airborne secretions.
Symptoms appear 5 to 15 days after exposure to the virus.

The child is probably contagious before the rash and before the other symptoms.

Lasts between 4 and 10 days.
No specific treatment.

The child should get plenty of rest and drink plenty of fluids. Fever reducing medication may be needed.

Mainly affects children between the ages of 6 months and 2 years.

There is currently no vaccine available.
Often starts with fever, aches and pains.

Generalized rash with itching occurs 1 to 2 days later.

The spots that form the rash first turn into fluid-filled blisters, which eventually crust over to form scabs.
Enters the body through the nose or mouth.

Spread mainly through the air. The virus can survive in the air for several hours.

Also spread by direct contact with the virus (e.g., touching a blister, the liquid or its moist crust) or contaminated objects.

Women who are pregnant can pass it on to their baby during pregnancy.
Symptoms appear 10 to 21 days after exposure.

The person is contagious 1 to 2 days before the spots appear and until they have crusted over (approximately 5 days).

The illness usually lasts 7 to 14 days. It takes about 2 weeks for the spots to disappear completely.

Since the virus lies dormant after an episode of chickenpox, it may be reactivated later in life, causing shingles.
Chickenpox is usually mild and commonly affects young children. Adolescents and adults who contract the disease can become seriously ill.

Severe cases may require antiviral therapy.

Pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems who have never had chickenpox should see their doctor right away.

There is a chickenpox vaccine available and it is part of the routine immunization schedule in some provinces and territories.

Keep fingernails short to prevent the child from scratching as it could lead to infection and scarring.

Adding baking soda or colloidal oatmeal powder (e.g., Aveeno) to bath water may help relieve itching.

Cold compresses and acetaminophen may also help relieve symptoms.

Outbreaks are most common in late winter and early spring.

If permitted, the child may go back to childcare or school as soon as he is well enough to participate in normal activities.
(Streptococcal or Staphylococci)
Small red spots that develop into pus-filled blisters that break open and discharge fluid and eventually form a yellowish crust.

The face (around the mouth, nose and eyes) is the most commonly affected area, but it can also appear on the trunk, hands and buttocks.

Occasionally accompanied by fever.
Direct skin contact (infected person) with discharge from the blisters or indirectly (bacteria on towels or clothing).

Bacteria enter the skin through breaks in the skin caused by scrapes, scratches, eczema or insect bites. The infection develops afterwards.
The person is contagious until all the crusts have healed or at least 24 to 48 hours after starting antibiotics.

Impetigo appears 7 to 10 days after exposure.

With adequate treatment, the infection rarely lasts more than 7 days.

Exclude the child from childcare or school at least 24 hours after starting antibiotic treatment.
Trim fingernails to help reduce the risk of spreading the infection.

Treatment may involve local therapy (ointment), antibiotic therapy (pill taken orally) or a combination of both.

It is possible to contract impetigo more than once.
(Respiratory syncytial virus)
Symptoms may include:
  • congestion and runny nose
  • cough
  • wheezing or rapid breathing
  • mild fever
  • otitis (on occasion)

Severe symptoms (e.g., persistent coughing, respiratory distress, choking while feeding) require immediate medical attention.

The illness may, on occasion, lead to pneumonia.
Spread by hands and objects contaminated with secretions from the infected person. The virus can survive several hours on toys and on the skin.

Airborne secretions.
Symptoms appear 2 to 8 days after exposure.

The child is contagious shortly before the appearance of symptoms and may even be so during convalescence.

The acute phase of the infection lasts 3 to 7 days. It takes 1 to 2 weeks to recover completely and may even be as long as 3 weeks.

A child may contract the infection more than once over the course of a season.
Most children do not require hospitalization or any specific treatment.

Children younger than 2 years of age are most commonly affected, especially infants between the ages of 3 and 6 months.

Outbreaks are most common in the fall and winter.

Offer fluids in small amounts more often than usual.

Using salt water (saline) and a bulb syringe may help relieve nasal congestion.

Medications such as acetaminophen may be used to relieve pain and fever.

More severe cases may require oxygen and medications that open the airways.

An antibiotic may also be indicated if the child contracts pneumonia.

The child may go to school or childcare if feeling well enough.
Hand, foot and mouth disease
(Coxsackie A16 virus/Enterovirus 71)
Small painful sores in the mouth. A skin rash with red spots, and sometimes with blisters that may also develop on the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, buttocks and other parts of the body.

Other symptoms: fever, headache, sore throat, loss of appetite, lack of energy, vomiting and diarrhea.
Spread by hands and objects contaminated with saliva and feces of an infected person. The virus can be found in a person's stool for 8 to 12 weeks after the start of the illness. Symptoms appear 3 to 6 days after exposure and usually last 7 to 10 days, but the sores in the mouth may persist for several weeks.

The child is contagious for the duration of the illness.
No specific treatment, no vaccine currently available.

Mainly affects children aged 6 months to 4 years.

Outbreaks are most common in the summer and early fall.

Drink plenty of water or milk. Avoid juices because they are acidic and may worsen the pain.

Do not pop the blisters.

If necessary, administer medication to relieve pain and fever.

The child may go to school or childcare if feeling well enough.

Measles and Rubella

Thanks to routine immunization, cases of measles and rubella are very rare in Canada. These diseases, however, can have serious consequences. Every effort should be made to prevent transmission to non-vaccinated individuals and to promote vaccination.

For more information:

Canadian Paediatric Society

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