Viral infections in children are common as children have low immunity. Viruses are tiny infectious agents that invade and multiply inside a living organism, and viral infections are caused when the host cells of the body react to viruses.
While there are several types of viral infections, such as chickenpox, AIDS, common cold, influenza, and dengue, common childhood viral infections are respiratory diseases (1). Viral infections can damage the cells or cause changes in cellular functions, and they may also affect different tissues and organs in the body. Some viruses may even cause interference in cell division, leading to cancers.
In this post, we give you the details about the common symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, home remedies, and prevention of viral infections in children.
Fever can be one of the common symptoms of a viral infection. The fever caused by viruses is called viral fever. Some viruses may cause a slight increase in body temperature, whereas others may cause a significant rise in temperature, which calls for immediate care.
The following signs and symptoms are also often seen in viral infections (2):
- Body ache
- Lack of appetite
- Watery eyes
- Cough or sneeze
- Skin rashes
These symptoms can vary depending on the virus that is responsible for causing the infection. Many of the viral infections are self-limiting and do not require special attention. However, this may depend on the viral load, and some viruses can cause severe infections, requiring hospitalization.
The type of virus and your child’s immunity may determine how often and how long the viral infections last. Some viral infections may resolve within a few days, whereas others may last longer. Viruses such as HIV stay forever in the body and continue to cause problems, while herpes viruses may remain inactive in the body and often reactivate and cause disease
Some viruses are highly contagious. Contracting viruses from infected people or animals can cause diseases. A few viruses are transmitted to humans through vectors such as mosquitoes or flies.
- Contaminated food and water (swallowing)
- Inhalation of respiratory droplets
- Blood transfusion
- Contaminated needles
- Vertical transmission or congenital (mother to child)
- Bites of insects, such as mosquitoes, flies, or ticks
Sharing needles can often cause diseases among teens who take drugs if the needles have been used by infected persons. Certain viruses such as herpes can be spread from kissing. Dengue virus, Zika virus, etc. are spread from infected people to healthy people through mosquito bites. Rabies viruses are spread through a bite or scratch from an infected animal.
Although children may come in contact with different types of viruses in their day-to-day life, it may not always lead to infection. The human body has a defense system against pathogens, including the epithelial cells of the skin that act as a physical barrier and immune system to attack the viruses that enter the human body.
The cells in the defense system attack and kill viruses. Our immune system has the ability to recognize a virus that has been encountered by the body and induce a rapid immune response when it appears a second time. However, sometimes, the bodily system may fail to defend viral replication and often result in infections.
A viral infection can be diagnosed through clinical evaluation, often from the pattern of the fever and other signs and symptoms. Your doctor may also evaluate it based on the epidemics occurring in your area. Diagnostic tests may be ordered to confirm, assess the severity, or to rule out the conditions.
Viral illnesses such as chickenpox and measles can be identified by observing the type and patterns of skin rashes. The rabies virus can be associated with the history of an animal bite. Infections related to dengue virus, ebola virus, etc. can be endemic to certain countries.
The following tests are often performed for the diagnosis of viral infections (5):
- Blood tests like complete blood cell count
- Blood culture
- Polymerase chain reaction to identify the virus from the samples
- Antigen testing
- Antibody tests
Chest X-ray, CT, MRI, ECG, EEG, ultrasound, etc., are often done to identify any complications related to viral infections.
Risks And Complications
Although viral infections are self-limiting in most cases, lower immunity and lack of supportive care can increase your child’s risk of developing complications. Sudden onset fever can result in febrile seizures in children if not controlled on time.
- Bacterial infection
- Increased risk for cancers
- Damages to immune cells (HIV)
- Paralysis (poliovirus)
- Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)
These complications can be specific to microorganisms. Some viruses can cause permanent damage to particular organs and organ systems and often be fatal. Seek medical care if the viral infection is not resolved within a few days or frequently recurs.
Viral infections are often treated with supportive care, including management of symptoms (8). A few cases may warrant antiviral therapies.
Although many of the viral infections lack specific treatment, the following treatments may be given to manage the severity of symptoms:
- Fever and body aches: Acetaminophen or NSAIDs
- Dehydration: Oral or intravenous fluids
- Diarrhea: Loperamide
- Skin rashes: Moisturizing creams, or antihistamines if there is itching associated with rashes
- Nausea and vomiting: Antiemetic drugs, such as ondansetron, or dietary modifications
- Sore throat: Lozenges
- Stuffy nose: Nasal decongestants
Often, if the child has severe respiratory distress, your doctor may hospitalize and initiate ventilatory support. The treatments listed above are not indicated for all children who have symptoms; you may consult your child’s doctor for appropriate treatment and dosage.
Antiviral drugs interfere with the replication of the viruses in the body: influenza, HIV, hepatitis C, etc. are treated with antivirals if required. Antivirals are often effective against one or two types of viruses, unlike antibiotics that can cover a broad spectrum of bacterial infections.
Oseltamivir, interferon, lamivudine, zidovudine, acyclovir, ribavirin, reverse transcriptase inhibitors, etc. are a few examples of antiviral drugs. If required, a doctor will prescribe the antibiotic specific to the disease after diagnosing your child (9).
If the infection is mild, you may try the following home treatments after seeking a doctor’s advice to relieve symptoms and boost the immune system.
The care at home may include (10):
- Taking plenty of rest for the body to fight the viruses
- Giving enough fluids to avoid dehydration. This will help to replace fluid loss due to fever, vomiting, or diarrhea. This may also help to soothe a sore throat. You may use oral rehydration solutions to replace electrolyte loss.
- Taking small frequent meals. Foods with less fat and sugar content are often preferred. Soups and well-cooked foods are the best choices. You may avoid raw vegetables or dairy if they have digestive problems.
- Gargling with salt water to ease throat pain
- Inhaling steam to relieve a stuffy nose
- Giving over-the-counter medications as suggested by the doctor for fever and pain
- Taking an uncooked oatmeal bath or using creams to reduce itch due to rashes
These treatments often support recovery. However, if you notice high fever, signs of dehydration, or other severe symptoms in your child, you may seek immediate medical care.
When To See The Doctor
If you are concerned about your child’s condition, you may contact your doctor. The following are indications that you should seek medical care during a viral illness (7):
- High fever
- Severe body pain
- Continuous vomiting or diarrhea
- Altered consciousness
- Loss of appetite
- Trouble breathing
- Exacerbation of asthma
- Extreme fatigue
The preventive measures for viral infections may vary based on the types of viruses. However, the following may help prevent viral illnesses (11):
- Hygiene measure
Certain vaccinations are given as a part of the routine vaccination schedule, and a few are given if there is a risk of contracting the disease. Vaccines such as rabies vaccines are given as post-exposure prophylaxis, that is, after an animal bite.
Vaccines are an effective way to prevent infection. This is a process to make the immune system healthy by stimulating the body’s defense system. You may ask your child’s doctor for the necessary vaccine, depending on the child’s age.
You may follow these measures to reduce the risk of contracting viruses (11):
- Washing hands frequently with soap and water
- Avoiding physical contact with infected people
- Eating well-cooked food or drinking treated water
- Covering the mouth and nose with a tissue while sneezing or coughing
- Using insect or mosquito repellents and nets
- Not sharing utensils with an infected person
- Not touching the eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands
These measures can help to reduce the risk of getting viruses. You may teach general rules to your child from a very early age. A few viral infections can be highly contagious; your child needs to stay at home until they are completely cured.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. What are the five stages of viral infection in children?
The five stages of viral infections are (12):
- Incubation (pathogens enter the host and start dividing)
- Prodromal (pathogens multiply, and the host experiences the symptoms)
- Illness (symptoms become severe)
- Decline (pathogens decrease and symptoms reduce)
- Convalescence period (normal functions return; in some cases, the body does not repair fully)
2. What are examples of viral infections in children?
Viral infections in children include chickenpox, influenza, mumps, ear infections, tonsillitis, and common cold (13).
3. How do I know if my child has a viral or bacterial infection?
Viral infections in children may last for up to 14 days. Some viral infections may be treated with antiviral medicines. On the other hand, bacterial infections may be secondary infections caused due to viral infections. These may last for more than ten to 14 days. Fever is higher in bacterial infection as compared to viral infection. Many bacterial infections need antibiotics, but some may not require them (14) (15).
Viral infections in children are common but need timely treatment to avoid complications. These infections are mainly caused by catching the virus from infected persons or contaminated objects. Untreated viral infections may lead to sepsis, myocarditis, or pneumonia. It is of utmost priority to ensure that you keep your child’s surroundings clean, keep them hydrated, and give them small but frequent meals. Contact the doctor immediately if you notice seizures, high fever, or troubled breathing. Once the child has recovered, teach them good personal hygiene habits and about taking care of themselves when outdoors.
If you are planning to travel with your child, it is important to know how to keep them safe from viral infections. You may discuss with your doctor the necessary immunizations, things to carry for their safety, and the precautions to take. This infographic highlights ways to protect your child from viral infections during travel.
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7. Viral Respiratory Infections – including symptoms, treatment and prevention; Government of South Australia
8. Differences between bacterial and viral infection; healthdirect; Australian Government Department of Health
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12. Characteristics and Steps of Infectious Diseases; Biology Libretexts
13. Viral illnesses; The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne
14. Differences between bacterial and viral infection; Healthdirect
15. Is it a Bacterial Infection or Virus?; Harvard Duke Health