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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.

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