What Are Common Illnesses in Babies and Toddlers? (video/podcast)

A Scripps pediatrician discusses symptoms and treatments

A Scripps pediatrician discusses symptoms and treatments

As the parent, you do all you can to keep your child as healthy as possible. Still, almost every baby will get sick from time to time.

Humans have an incredibly smart and complex immune system that can fight off hundreds of viruses and bacterial infections. However, it takes time for the immune system to learn to recognize these different invaders and become efficient at preventing them from making us sick.

While infants are born with an immune system, it can take several years for it to mature and successfully learn to defend against illness. In fact, at least 200 different viruses cause symptoms of the common cold.

Coughs, colds, respiratory infections and other symptoms are concerning, but educating yourself about common infant illnesses and being prepared to care for your baby can make the experience less stressful for both of you. 

San Diego Health host Susan Taylor talks with Henna Park, DO, a pediatrician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Carlsbad, about the most common health problems among babies and what to do if your little one isn’t feeling well.

Respiratory infections

Among the most common childhood illnesses are viral respiratory infections, including rhinovirus, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), the flu and COVID-19. Typically, all of these have fairly similar symptoms: cough, congestion, fever, low energy, loss of appetite. Younger babies may be fussier than usual and not feeding as well; they may be taking in lower volumes of formula or unlatching more often while nursing.

Because viruses cause these illnesses, antibiotics will not help. In these cases, treatment is supportive, providing relief from symptoms as the infection runs its course. 

“In terms of fevers, if your child is over six months of age, you can alternate between Tylenol and Motrin,” says Dr. Park. “For those under six months, just stick to Tylenol because Motrin can't be processed as well by the kidneys at that age, and we worry about things like kidney damage in the temporary or long term.”

If you child has a cough or congestion, use a humidifier to help moisten the air, along with warm steamy baths at night to release mucus before they go to bed. Nasal saline and suctioning can help remove the loose mucus.

Whooping cough is another respiratory illness that also causes cough and congestion, often lasting up to a couple of months. Unlike the viral infections above, whooping cough is caused by a bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. Your pediatrician can test for it and prescribe antibiotics along with supportive care.

Ear infections

Ear infections result from a build-up of fluid in the middle ear behind the eardrum and often develop after a viral respiratory infection. They affect kids more often than adults because children have shorter, more horizontal ear canals than adults, so they drain fluid less efficiently.

Symptoms of ear infection include inflammation, pressure and sometimes pain in the ear. Children may tug or pull on their ears and have trouble sleeping; babies may be more fussy, cry and even develop a fever.

Often, an ear infection will clear up on its own, or with home treatments, but if the fluid sits in the ear for a long time, it can “brew” a bacteria. Depending on your child’s symptoms and their age, your pediatrician may recommend a period of observation or prescribe an antibiotic.

Diaper rash

Diaper rash typically results from contact with the stool, causing a condition called irritant dermatitis. Dr. Park recommends changing your baby’s diaper frequently to reduce the time of contact between the stool and baby’s skin, and rinsing your baby’s bottom well with warm water. Try to avoid soap as it may irritate skin that is trying to heal. Apply a barrier cream with zinc oxide after the warm water rinse to protect tender skin from the surface of the diaper.

“If you find that the rash lasts more than three days after trying home care, that would be a good time to check in with your pediatrician. There are some yeast infections that can present similarly and progress over the next couple of weeks,” says Dr. Park.

Know the “red flags”

With some childhood illnesses, it’s best to call your pediatrician as soon as you notice symptoms. These include:

  • Any fever in a child who is younger than three months of age
  • Fevers that last more than three days
  • Ear pain, which can indicate an ear infection
  • Any breathing difficulties, such as flaring the nostrils, trying to get air in, breathing faster than usual
  • Any changes to the color of their skin

“It can be very hard to decide if its time to see the doctor. You have very valuable information as a parent because you know your baby so well,” says Dr. Park. “If you feel like your baby is not acting themselves or if you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to us. We are here to work with you to figure that out.”

Listen to the podcast on common illnesses in babies and toddlers

Listen to the podcast on common illnesses in babies and toddlers

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