Monday Medical: Winter viruses in kids |

Monday Medical: Winter viruses in kids

Susan Cunningham
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part series on viruses that affect children in winter. Part one covered the common cold.

While the common cold might be the viral infection that most often affects children, other viruses can wreak havoc on your child’s health, especially during the winter months.

Below, Dr. Patrick Grathwohl, a pediatrician in Steamboat Springs and a member of the medical staff at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, outlines what you need to know about winter viruses that affect kids.

Which viruses most commonly affect kids?

Croup is a virus that irritates the upper airways and causes them to swell, which results in a barky cough, wheezing and a fever.

Adenovirus causes sore throat, pink eye and various other symptoms.

Hand-foot-and-mouth disease is a mild viral infection caused by the coxsackievirus that causes a rash on the hands and feet, sores in the mouth, sore throat, low appetite and fever.

Respiratory syncytial virus — or RSV — is similar to a cold, but more intense, causing labored breathing and a lot of nasal discharge.

“RSV can cause serious illness in younger children,” Grathwohl said. “Parents are encouraged to contact their primary care provider if they notice labored breathing, which may involve the ribs protruding with each breath, nasal flaring or rapid breathing.”

Viral gastroenteritis, often called the stomach flu, affects the intestines and causes vomiting and diarrhea.

And influenza, or the ‘flu,’ is one of the more severe viral infections that can affect babies and children. In children, the flu usually shows up first as a high fever — often up to 103 degrees or higher — that comes on quickly. Other symptoms include headache, body aches, low energy, cough, runny nose and sore throat.

“We encourage getting the flu vaccine, as it can protect against the flu or decrease the duration and severity of illness,” Grathwohl said. “Any time your child has a high fever, you should contact your primary care provider.”

Why does my child keep getting sick?

With many viral infections, the first exposure is enough to prevent later infections — once the immune system recognizes the virus, it can ward it off in the future. But that doesn’t mean your child won’t get sick with a similar virus again.

“There are so many subtypes of some of these viruses, immunity often does little to prevent subsequent infections,” Grathwohl said. “RSV and croup typically do not produce lasting immunity, but subsequent infections with the same virus are often milder and won’t last as long.”

How are viral infections treated?

Making sure your child stays hydrated is of top importance. Ibuprofen and acetaminophen can help lower a fever and make your child more comfortable, but antibiotics aren’t necessary.

“Antibiotics are not useful in the treatment of viruses as they only target bacteria,” Grathwohl said. “Antibiotics are often used for ear infections, pneumonia and sinusitis, which are typically bacterial.”

Antivirals can help treat some viruses, including influenza, if started early.

Grathwohl doesn’t recommended herbal or alternative treatments for children, as scientific studies for those treatments are lacking.

How do I keep my child from getting sick?

Getting sick is part of growing up, as it helps build up your child’s immune system. But never underestimate the power of frequent hand washing.

“Prevention through adequate hand washing is very helpful,” Grathwohl said. “It’s often impossible to completely avoid people who are ill, but direct contact is discouraged.”

When should my child see a doctor?

While high fever and difficulty breathing are clear signs that your child should see a medical professional, sometimes it’s hard to know if a visit to the doctor’s office is warranted. Grathwohl recommends erring on the side of caution.

“If a parent is wondering if their child needs to be seen by their primary care provider, it’s always a good idea to contact their office to discuss the symptoms,” Grathwohl said. “Parental intuition goes a long way, so always listen to that.”

Susan Cunningham writes for UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at

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