Common childhood infections

Many parents have the impression that their youngster is always sick. Young children are very vulnerable to germs (viruses and bacteria) that cause infections like the common cold and gastroenteritis (stomach flu). Why? Because their immune system, which protects them against germs, is not developed enough yet—and because they are always touching things!

Most infections in young children are not serious, don’t last long, and go away by themselves. Theses infections often occur more frequently in the first year of day care. They gradually diminish as children get older and their immune systems develop.

Transmission of infections

Infection-causing germs are everywhere (e.g., on toys, floors, door handles, and more). They are found in the nose, mouth, and stools, as well as on the skin. They can also be carried by animals.

It’s impossible to completely avoid germs. In fact, some exposure to germs is essential for the proper development of the immune system. It helps your child build up a personal supply of antibodies for the future.

Usually, germs are spread by the hands. They can also be spread in other ways, such as through saliva and secretions (e.g., kissing or sneezing) or contact with contaminated surfaces or objects.

Preventing infections

There are several ways to reduce the transmission of infections.

Washing your hands

Usually, germs are spread by the hands. Properly washing your and your child’s hands can help reduce the spread of infections (see How to do a good hand washing, below).

Getting vaccinated

Vaccination is one of the most effective ways to protect children against various serious diseases. It is recommended that you have your child vaccinated according to the regular schedule (see Vaccination).

Sneezing into your elbow or a tissue

Whenever possible, cough or sneeze into a tissue or your elbow, not into your hands. Teach your child to do the same. Throw out paper tissues right after using them and wash your and your child’s hands.

Washing objects and surfaces

Thoroughly wash toys and other objects (e.g., cups, utensils) that you use regularly, especially anything your child puts in her mouth.

Avoiding contact with saliva

Don’t share toothbrushes or utensils with other people, even with your child. Don’t clean your baby’s pacifier by putting it in your mouth. Also, avoid kissing your child on the mouth.

Avoiding contact with sick people

As much as possible, prevent children, especially babies under 3 months old, from coming into direct, prolonged contact with people who have contagious diseases (e.g., fever, cough, nasal congestion, sore throat, diarrhea).

If your child has a contagious disease, fever, cold, or diarrhea, or if she is coughing a lot, it’s preferable that she stay home. If you have to go out or have visitors, it’s also a good idea to notify them or people you are intending to visit that your child is sick.

If you are pregnant, see Contact with people with a contagious disease.

Wear a mask (face covering)

Essential information to remember

Masks (face coverings) are not recommended for children under 2.

To reduce the transmission of infections, you can wear a mask when you have symptoms of contagious diseases (e.g., fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose), especially when you need to be in contact with vulnerable people.

Childcare services

Childcare services usually have clear policies about keeping sick kids at home. Reading and understanding these rules is important to help keep everyone healthy (other children, the staff, and other parents).

If your child is sick, tell your childcare provider about your child’s symptoms and ask if she can attend that day.

Your sick child may not have the energy to engage in her usual activities. If necessary, keep her at home.

How to do a good hand washing

Essential information to rememberThe best way to prevent infections is to wash your hands often throughout the day.

Photo: Anne-Marie Turcotte-Tremblay

The best way to reduce the spread of infections is to wash your hands with soap often throughout the day, especially when you are sick.

When should you wash your hands?

  • Before preparing meals, eating, breastfeeding, and feeding or giving medication to your child
  • After using or accompanying a child to the toilet, changing a diaper, caring for someone who is ill, cleaning up vomit or diarrhea, coughing or sneezing into your hands, wiping a nose, throwing out a soiled tissue, touching or playing with a pet, or cleaning an animal cage or litter box or visiting a public place

Wash your children’s hands as often as necessary, especially

  • Before meals and snacks
  • After they use the potty or toilet and after they play outdoors, in the sandbox, or with pets, and after they visit a public place

How should you wash your hands?

  • Wet your hands in warm running water. Water that is too hot dries out the skin and is no more effective.
  • Rub your hands together with mild soap (bar or liquid) for 20 seconds, including your fingernails and thumb, and the area between your fingers.
  • Rinse your hands well in warm running water.
  • Dry hands thoroughly with a clean towel.

If necessary you can use a moisturizing lotion or cream to prevent chapping.

If your child is too small to reach the sink

The above method is the most effective but is not always easy with small children. In that case

  • First wash your child’s hands with a paper towel or clean washcloth soaked in warm water and soap during 20 seconds
  • Rinse her hands with a washcloth soaked in warm water
  • Dry her hands well

Waterless hand sanitizer

Washing thoroughly with soap and water remains the best option. If water is not available, you can use a towelette or alcohol-based waterless hand sanitizer. These products should only be used when no alternative is available and are not recommended for children under 2 years of age.

If you use a hand sanitizer, choose one that contains alcohol. Place a small amount in the palm of your hand and dip your nails in the product. Rub your hands together, including the nails, thumbs, and area between your fingers, until the product completely evaporates.

Since the hand sanitizer contains alcohol, make sure to keep it out of the reach of children.

Antibodies: Substances made by the body to fight off disease. Also called immunoglobulins.

Contagious disease: An infectious disease that is transmitted from person to person.

Immune system: Organs and mechanisms that allow the body to fight against infections.