Many childhood illnesses are the
result of viral infections. Viruses cause over 70% of childhood
respiratory illnesses and 80% of intestinal infections. The virus is
a microscopic organism passed from person to person by coughing,
sneezing, and hand-to-hand contact. Unlike bacteria, viruses are
unaffected by antibiotics, but are generally well controlled by the
body’s own immune defenses.
Viruses often distinguish themselves by the signs and symptoms they
cause. The chicken pox, measles and rubella viruses are known for
the characteristic rash and discomfort they cause. Mumps virus
produces swelling of the salivary glands, and influenza virus causes
a long-lasting illness with fever, muscles aches and cough. The
poliovirus is known for the nerve damage it causes. The
mononucleosis virus causes sore throat, fever, and prolonged
fatigue. Other viruses, however, produce only general symptoms such
as fever, runny nose, cough, vomiting, or diarrhea. These viruses do
not have commonly recognized names.
Currently, the only effective treatment for most viral infections is
the body’s own immune system which is possibly enhanced by fever.
Children with viral infections causing symptoms such as runny nose,
fever, headache, sore throat, muscle aches and fatigue will feel
better with plenty of rest, good fluid intake, and pain medication (Tempra,
Tylenol). Antihistamines and decongestants may be offered for
congestion and anti-nausea medications may be useful for vomiting.
Occasionally simple viral infections will result in secondary
complications requiring further evaluation. An ear or sinus
infection may follow a persistent runny nose and congestion.
Dehydration may result from persistent vomiting and diarrhea due to
a stomach virus. A prolonged viral chest cold may lead to bacterial
pneumonia. Given a few days, most children recover from viral
infections without incident. If, however, new problems arise or the
primary problem persists longer than expected, the child with a
diagnosed viral illness should be re-evaluated by the physician.