Having a sick child is exhausting and worrying. Especially troubling are the younger children who can't communicate their pain to us. We parents aren't always sure when our infant's illness is something serious. Usually, we visit the doctor's office more often with our first child and learn when to come back based on the doctor's suggestions. Erring on the side of caution is common practice - it is our child's life after all!
Even if you frequently ask for the doctor's advice it is important to be aware of some of the most serious signs of illness, so that you'll see them if your child begins to experience them. Here are the most serious and potentially deadly viral infections your child can catch. We'll explain their usual symptoms and what kind of treatments you might expect from the doctor, or emergency room. We'll also mention any major prevention methods that exist, which thankfully, usually includes a very effective vaccine. Let's get started.
Measles is very infectious. In fact, around ninety per cent of those who come into contact with a person who has measles will become infected themselves. Measles also causes complications, including problems resulting from a weakened immune system, a whopping thirty per cent of the time! Luckily, measles has been well controlled and almost eliminated from the United States since the 1960s when the measles vaccine program began. Unfortunately, recent misinformation from anti-vaccines groups has made for more unvaccinated children, and so yearly small-scale outbreaks are common.
Children with measles who receive medical attention rarely die, but children who have other diseases, like cancer or auto-immune diseases, are more likely to perish from the measles if they become infected. These children also can't get the vaccine because their immune systems are too stressed. So, they rely on healthy children who can get vaccinated to prevent outbreaks. Sadly, the less children that are vaccinated the more these vulnerable children are likely to suffer.
Rubella is most dangerous for unborn children and their pregnant mothers. Fetuses exposed to rubella in the first trimester may develop serious birth defects that can lead to death. Once the baby is born, the effects of rubella are much less deadly, but can still cause internal bleeding and brain infections that are potentially fatal.
Sometimes rubella has no symptoms. However, usually young children with rubella will develop a rash that starts on the face and spreads to the body. Their eyes will appear inflamed, they'll have a low fever, and they may be nauseous. Children old enough to talk, or adults, will have the same symptoms but may also tell you that their joints ache and that they feel swollen behind their eyes and/or ears. Once, rubella was a common childhood disease, but like so many of the diseases on this list, we now have a vaccine for Rubella which has saved countless lives.
This viral infection effects the gastrointestinal tract, the stomach and related organs. An infected person will have severe and watery diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting that can last for eight days. The biggest cause of death for children who get this infection is actually a loss of fluids, which is why hospitalized children with Rotavirus will be given an IV to supplement their fluids. A single bout of diarrhea or vomiting is not unusual in children, so instead watch out for dehydration, or diarrhea or vomiting that is persistent. If your child is dehydrated, you may notice that they cry without tears, or with few tears, sleep more than usual, pee less often, become very irritable, and have a dry mouth.
If your child is old enough to stand and walk they may also become dizzy when they do so. Rotavirus is especially dangerous because the vaccine is not one hundred per cent effective. However, children who are vaccinated have less severe rotavirus infections which are less likely to cause complications. Otherwise, there is no effective treatment for Rotavirus. Antibiotics aren't effective because they only work for bacteria, not viruses and no anti-viral medication has worked so far.
From the infected person's point of view, norovirus is very similar to rotavirus. Both cause diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, and stomach pain. The biggest risk for your child, should they become infected with norovirus, is also dehydration, which will appear quite the same as dehydration from rotavirus. Norovirus also has no cure or effective treatment. However, it also has no vaccine, unlike Rotavirus. Norovirus causes up to 800 deaths a year in the United States, and mostly of young children and the elderly. This infection is kept under control mainly through proper hand washing and food cleanliness standards.
Death from Mumps is exceedingly rare, but can happen if this viral infection becomes encephalitis, which is most likely to happen to adults. Still, mumps is an awful infection for a child to suffer through. Mumps will cause a child to run a fever and will cause their salivary glands to swell up. When this swelling peaks the child's jaw bone can no longer be felt. The child will also likely have a headache, feel tired, and lose weight. Long-term complications potentially include deafness, sterility, and pancreatitis. This is a very infectious disease, through saliva, and so those who have it are requested to quarantine themselves. The good news is that vaccination against mumps has reduced its prevalence by 99 per cent in the United States, although there have been several outbreaks in recent years. Mumps also, rarely, causes our next infection: meningitis.
Meningitis and sepsis often occur together. Both are the body's reaction to an extreme infection; viral or bacterial. Sepsis indicates that the infection has reached the bloodstream, while Meningitis indicates that the infection has reached the spinal cord and brain. As you can imagine, these are both very serious and potentially fatal conditions. In children that are too young to communicate their pain, the signs of meningitis are: a high fever, reduced appetite, constant crying, excessive sleeping, stiffness, or a bulge on the front of the baby's head. If your child is old enough to speak they may also complain of a headache, confusion, sensitivity to light, difficulty walking, and even seizures. Antibiotics are the only cure for these two conditions, without which an infected child will die. Other treatments may be required, like fluid replacement, to control the symptoms of meningitis, but they are not cures by themselves.
It's important to note that sepsis, which is sometimes called blood poisoning, usually occurs before meningitis, as most infections usually reach the bloodstream before the spinal cord and brain. Sepsis has varying degrees, from serious infection to septic shock - which causes death - through which the body will likely progress, even if meningitis never occurs.
Symptoms of just sepsis include fever and chills (although young infants are more likely to have very low body temperatures), fast breathing and pulse, vomiting and diarrhea (as the body attempts to remove the infection from the digestive system), and decreased urination (as the kidneys struggle to filter the infected blood). There may also be a red line starting from the site of a wound indicating where the infection entered the blood, but this is not always present. A child, or adult for that matter, who has sepsis needs to be brought to a hospital immediately.
There are many strands of the adenovirus that are harmless to humans, however, adenovirus serotype 14 can be fatal. This strand only recently developed and one variant originated in the United States. Symptoms are usually flu-like including fever, sore throat, bronchitis, diarrhea, bladder infection, and eye infection. Luckily, this infection is very rare and fatalities from it are even rarer.
This infection is another recent development, this time caused by the lassa virus. There haven't been any cases of this virus in the United States, but it is a developing problem in West Africa. Rodents carry the infection to humans, who might then spread the virus to others through bodily fluids, but not casual touch. Symptoms are usually mild, but occasionally result in death through bleeding or inability to breath. Sometimes survivors suffer long-term hearing loss. Unless you travel to West Africa, this disease is very unlikely to affect you or your children. However, it does cause thousands of deaths a year in Africa despite a largely effective anti-viral medication and there is no effective vaccine yet.
Shingles is caused by the virus called herpes zoster. The first time you get this virus it causes chicken pox, but the second time it may cause shingles instead. Shingles is most likely to effect the elderly who have weakened immune systems. However, children have developed shingles before and the infection is far from pleasant for either age group. First, an infected individual feels a burning and stinging pain on their skin. Then, a skin rash develops that blisters and becomes fluid-filled and quite painful. The infected person will also suffer from body aches, fever, nausea, and chills. Shingles occasionally causes complications, but it can be treated with an anti-viral medication. Also, a vaccine exists for herpes voster which can protect children from chicken pox as well as from shingles.
Our use of the polio vaccine has kept the U.S. polio free since 1979! However, other areas of the world are not so lucky and many Americans may be surprised to hear that they need a booster shot before they go on vacation to some countries. Otherwise, the polio vaccine is a success story that highlights what we could accomplish if we all vaccinated our children against some of the other diseases on this list. Once, even if a child survived polio they could be crippled for life. My great uncle was one of these unfortunate victims, and many other child shared his burden each year because there was no treatment - and there still isn't, for those who aren't vaccinated. Vaccinating your child on schedule will keep this disease from ever rearing its head again.