Help! My baby's sick: 13 illnesses your baby is most likely to catch during his first 12 months

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Keep track of all your baby's illnesses. (Getty Images)
Keep track of all your baby's illnesses. (Getty Images)

Babies younger than three months – especially those who have no older brothers or sisters – usually only suffer from niggles such as a blocked nose, nappy rash or oral thrush.

The more serious illnesses – like flu and pneumonia – only hit between four and six months. We look at the illnesses your baby can catch during the first 12 months of his life.

Sister Lise Yzelle, an experienced clinic sister from Bloemfontein, describes the symptoms and tells us how these conditions are usually treated.

1. Common cold

Children under two catch between six and eight upper-respiratory-tract infections per year. Most often the condition is rhinitis, a term that broadly refers to a runny or blocked nose.

Symptoms

Cold begins with a low-grade fever accompanied by a runny nose. The discharge from the nose is usually clear but later becomes purulent (consisting of, or being pus). A common cold usually clears within five to seven days.

Possible complications

The illness can deteriorate into a bacterial infection such as acute sinusitis and middle-ear infection, as well as feeding problems in small babies as they can mostly only breathe through their nose.

Treatment

The symptoms are treated with antihistamine and anti-inflammatory agents. A blocked nose is also effectively treated with a saline (salt-water) solution that you can spray into Baby's nose. You can also drip some breastmilk into the nose, as it has anti-inflammatory properties.

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2. Ear infections

Babies are unfortunately more prone than the rest of us to contract ear infection. There are three kinds: infection of the middle ear (otitis media), infection of the exterior ear (otitis externa or swimmer's ear) and otitis with effusion. Middle-ear infection occurs most often.

Symptoms

Sore ears, high fever, a weepy or niggly baby, wax and/or any other runny yellow liquid coming out of the ear. Your child’s ears can also itch. Babies often touch their ears. In severe cases, a baby can suffer temporary hearing loss and be off-balance.

Treatment

Pain meds, antibiotics and sometimes cortisone are three popular treatments. In the case of repeated infection, an ear, nose and throat specialist will probably recommend draining pipes (grommets). Don't administer drops in your baby’s ears without a script. Also, avoid using any oils in baby’s ears, and don’t try and clean his ears with a bud.

3. Croup

This is a viral infection that causes the vocal cords to swell.

Symptoms

A child with croup has a characteristic barking cough that’s compared to the call of a seal or walrus. It’s also accompanied by a hoarse voice and having difficulty breathing. Croup happens suddenly, unfortunately usually at night. Croup is also sometimes accompanied by cold symptoms and fever.

Treatment

The most important thing is to keep your child as calm as possible and administer an adrenaline inhaler. In severe cases, children go to the hospital, where they’re given oxygen.

4. Baby measles

Baby measles (roseola infantum) is a condition caused by two human herpes viruses named HHV6 and HHV7, and it's not contagious.

Symptoms

A sudden high fever followed by a rash of small raised red spots, mostly behind the baby’s ears. The rash always only disappears once the fever has disappeared.

Treatment

Your doctor will only prescribe fever medication. There is also no specific immunisation against baby measles.

5. Pneumonia

Pneumonia is the most common lung infection that occurs among young children. Bacterial pneumonia follows a viral infection like a common cold because the latter makes the respiratory tracts more susceptible to a bacterial infection.

Symptoms

Cough, high fever, rapid breathing and rib cage moving up and down during breathing. Coarse rasping sounds can be heard across the lung area with a stethoscope. Children often also lose their appetite and are listless.

They sometimes vomit and can be short of breath. The diagnosis is confirmed with a lung X-ray but saliva is also sometimes analysed to confirm that it’s pneumonia.

Treatment

Antibiotics are the cornerstone of treatment while inhaling agents and physiotherapy are also effective as supplementary treatments. Oxygen is also given if there is a loss of breath.

Also read: What exactly is cradle cap, and what should you do about it?

6. Tonsillitis

Tonsillitis is a very common infection during the baby years.

Symptoms

High fever, sore throat and bad breath. The tonsils are enlarged and the doctor can spot purulent spots on the tonsils. Children with tonsillitis usually don't feel like eating and appear listless. They can even struggle with swallowing and are generally very uncomfortable.

Treatment

Mainly with antibiotics. It's also important that your child is given enough fluids. Pain is managed with paracetamol or something similar.

Some doctors also prescribe a throat spray. If your child repeatedly (at least three times a year) contracts tonsillitis and is older than three years, you can consider having the tonsils removed. But, consult a good ear, nose and throat specialist in this regard.

7. Bronchiolitis

It's one of the most common airway infections and mostly occurs in babies of three to four months old. Infection through the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and other viruses – like influenza, para-influenza and the adenovirus – are the main culprits, but other contagious illnesses that usually occur in children during autumn and winter are also sometimes blamed for bronchiolitis.

Symptoms

One or two days after an upper-respiratory-tract infection has been contracted, babies develop a cough and start breathing rapidly. They also have problems eating and often run a fever. The baby may appear restless and sometimes even anxious.

Treatment

Pain relief for the symptoms above is the usual treatment. In more serious cases, like when RSV hits, the baby could be referred to hospital. Prematurely born babies can get a special temporary vaccination against RSV.

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8. Skin conditions

Many babies have eczema. Doctors describe it as inflammation of the top layer of the skin (epidermis). It occurs especially in children with a history of allergies, asthma or a sensitive immune system.

Treatment

If the skin is just dry it can be relieved with an oily cream or ointment, but in more serious cases a steroid cream is prescribed by a doctor.

As with constipation and allergies, prevention is very important. Wash your baby's clothes with special soap for sensitive skins and avoid products that contain colourings and flavourings.

9. Oral thrush

It's a fungal infection of the species Candida. 

Symptoms

There's a white rash in the mouth and red spots on the nappy area. If a baby with an oral infection is still nursing, her nipples can also become infected. They'll be covered in round red spots and be very painful.

Thrush usually occurs on the tongue, inside the cheeks, on the gums and even on the tonsils and palate. It's recognisable as a continuous white layer that looks like cottage cheese.

Treatment

Anti-fungal medication is very effective. It's also wise to use probiotics with medication to promote good bacteria in the gut. Clean your baby's mouth before applying the ointment.

Use 1 cup cooled boiled water, ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon baking soda. You can apply this with a swab of gauze.

Golden tip

Is very easy to distinguish between oral thrush and milk deposit in small babies. The latter is usually limited to the tongue and sometimes the inner cheeks. It's easily removed when you try with a toothbrush or your nail. Thrush occurs more widely in the mouth and cannot be scratched off.

10. Constipation

A constipated baby is something with which all parents battle at some point.

Symptoms

Hard, dry stools and a baby that needs to exert himself to have a bowel movement. The stool usually looks like little balls.

Treatment

It's important to first treat the causes of constipation. So for instance consider whether your baby’s formula has been correctly mixed. It could also be that the milk does not agree with him.

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Discuss these kinds of feeding issues with your clinic sister or paediatrician before switching to a new formula. If you are using a scripted medication for constipation, never deviate from the dosage and manufacturer indications and also the instructions are given by your doctor.

Babies who are exclusively breastfed are usually not prone to constipation. Breast babies sometimes only have one soiled nappy per week, but if the texture is soft and the poo comes out without much trouble, it's all good.

11. Flu

Influenza can hit babies of any age, and symptoms can occur very shortly – one or two days – after exposure to the virus.

Symptoms

Fever, a runny nose, body aches, headache, listlessness, runny or red eyes and/or a red nose and throat.

Treatment

Prevention is very important, and the most effective way is getting a flu shot for babies older than six months. Your baby will have to be jabbed twice in the first year, but just once a year after that. The infection can also be controlled with good hygiene.

Here are a few useful tips:

Wash your hands often; avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth; and don’t share cutlery. It often takes longer to recover from the flu than from a cold.

12. Baby allergies

An allergy is an ailment where our bodies are hypersensitive to something specific (called an allergen). It’s usually hereditary. The most common allergens (elements causing allergies) are:

  • Pollen from specific grasses and some trees
  • House dust mites that live on human skin flakes – these mostly occur in bed linen
  • Skin flakes from animals such as dogs, cats and even rabbits
  • Feathers of different birds
  • Fungal spores that grow in moist spots or rotting plant material
  • A variety of foodstuffs such as the lactose in cow’s milk, eggs, wheat, nuts, berries and fish How do you know which allergen should be blamed for your child’s allergy? Skin and blood tests can determine this.

Symptoms

An allergy can cause reactions such as asthma, hay fever and rhinitis (runny or blocked nose), or eczema or a rash that itches, or eyes that sting and/or itch.

Treatment

It's difficult to cure an allergy, as its most often an inherited condition. The main aim, therefore, is prevention. But your doctor will also prescribe something to relieve the symptoms.

13. Diarrhoea and nausea

Diarrhoea is common in children and could point to illnesses such as gastroenteritis; infections, such as a respiratory or urinary tract infection or encephalitis; allergies and poisoning.

Must see: 'Sterilise everything that they might put in their mouths': Germ truths for new parents

In most children with acute diarrhoea, the cause is either a bacteria that affects the small and large intestine or a virus such as the notorious rotavirus.

Possible complications

The main one is dehydration and you'll recognise it with skin that becomes less elastic. Other symptoms include dry mouth, substantially fewer wet nappies or none at all, and rapid weight loss. A baby that's busy dehydrating is very listless and usually refuses any form of food.

Treatment

The main goal is to prevent dehydration by giving your child lots of fluids. If your baby is already dehydrated, he needs to get to a doctor immediately. A baby that doesn't take in any liquid, goes to the hospital and gets it intravenously. In the case of gastroenteritis, hygiene is very important since it's a contagious illness.

Make your rehydration mix to prevent dehydration:

Mix a litre of water that's boiled and then been left to cool down, 8 teaspoons sugar and a ½ teaspoon salt, and give it to your baby regularly. You can also buy rehydration agents at the pharmacy or supermarket.

Protect your baby

Here are Lise Yzelle's five top tips for preventing illnesses in babies. Ensure your baby's vaccinations are up to date, as this is the only antidote to a bunch of serious childhood illnesses.

Visit a baby clinic near you for an updated schedule of when babies need to be immunised and for what. Stick the numbers of the emergency services, fire brigade, your GP, paediatrician, clinic sister and poison centre on your fridge.

Breastfeed if possible

Breastmilk protects babies against infections and contains ingredients that help boost your baby's immunity. Always complete a course of antibiotics and never store leftovers and use them again for your baby or your other children.

Keep track of all your baby's illnesses. Jot down the illness and how old baby was when he contracted it. This information might come in handy at a later stage.

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