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Viral Infections

What is a viral infection?

When a virus gets into your body and grows it is called a viral infection. Your body's immune system must destroy the viruses and keep more from being formed. Young children have trouble fighting viruses because their immune system is still developing.

The most common viral infection is the common cold. Some other viral illnesses in children include:

  • Bronchiolitis and viral pneumonia
  • Roseola
  • Fifth disease
  • Warts
  • Chickenpox
  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
  • Measles
  • Mumps
  • Polio
  • Viral diarrhea (rotavirus)
  • Adenovirus.

What is the cause?

Viruses are spread by coming in contact with infected fluids or secretions. They can be on surfaces such as toys, tables, doorknobs, or telephones. A common way to "catch" a virus is to touch an infected person or item and then rub your eyes or nose. Viruses can also enter the body through foods, drinks, or insect or animal bites. Viruses can also be inhaled from the air after someone coughs or sneezes. Another way a virus can be passed is from a mother to her newborn baby before or during delivery, or very rarely through breast-feeding.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms caused by viruses depend on what kind of virus it is and where the virus is in the body. Some viruses cause a sore throat, cough, runny nose, headache, or muscle aches. Some cause rashes. Others cause abdominal symptoms such as nausea, cramping, and diarrhea.

How is it diagnosed?

Your child's healthcare provider will ask about your child's medical history and symptoms. The provider will examine your child. Your child may also have blood tests to help find the cause of your child’s illness. It is important to find out if the infection is caused by a virus or by bacteria.

How is it treated?

Children with viral infections usually get better without special treatment. Bacterial infections may need to be treated with antibiotics. There are some antiviral medicines, but they are only used for a few viral infections. Antibiotics have no effect on viruses.

How can I help take care of my child?

Viruses are hard to kill without also damaging or killing the living cells they infect. This problem makes it hard to develop medicines that kill just viruses. There are some antiviral medicines, but they are only used for a few viral infections. Antibiotics have no effect on viruses.

If your child has a viral infection, have your child:

  • Get plenty of rest
  • Drink lots of fluids

Your child may not have much of an appetite, and you should not try to force your child to eat.

Give your child acetaminophen or ibuprofen for fever and pain relief. Check with your healthcare provider before you give any medicine that contains aspirin or salicylates to a child or teen. This includes medicines like baby aspirin, some cold medicines, and Pepto-Bismol. Children and teens who take aspirin are at risk for a serious illness called Reye's syndrome.

Your child can return to school and other activities once he or she feels better and no longer has fever.

How can I help prevent a viral infection?

Make sure your child washes his or her hands or uses hand sanitizer frequently, especially after going to the bathroom. Avoid sharing eating utensils, towels, and handkerchiefs. Teach children to use a tissue when they sneeze or cough and throw tissues away immediately.

Many viral diseases can be prevented by immunizations. Make sure your child gets all recommended vaccinations. A healthy diet, plenty of exercise, and rest will help your child to fight off viral infections.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2013.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2012-02-06
Last reviewed: 2011-09-08
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2013 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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