Common School-Age Illnesses/Infections

Last Updated September 2022 | This article was created by editorial staff and reviewed by Deepak S. Patel, MD, FAAFP, FACSM

Getting sick is part of being a kid. Their immune systems haven’t been exposed to as many germs as those of adults. So when they do come into contact with germs, they get sick more often. There are some illnesses and infections that are very common in children. Most of them are relatively harmless and can be cared for at home.

It’s important to know what illnesses and infections are common during childhood and adolescence. This will help you identify an uncommon illness in your child more quickly.

Path to improved well being

All kids get sick from time to time. Most of the illnesses they pass around are very common. They are usually not a major cause for concern. The most common illnesses and infections include:

Common cold

  • Symptoms: Sneezing, runny nose, congestion, cough, watery eyes.
  • Cause: A virus that is easily spread among people, especially children.
  • Treatment: Colds will run their course. There’s not much you can do. Do not give children under 6 years of age over the counter (OTC) cough and cold medicines. You can give your child acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) to ease some of their symptoms. These medicines can help with headache, muscle aches, and fever. Never give aspirin to kids or teens. It has been linked to Reye’s syndrome, a rare but serious disease.

Influenza (“flu”)

  • Symptoms: Fever, chills, body aches, sore throat, loss of appetite, tiredness.
  • Cause: A virus that can spread easily, especially by coughing or sneezing into the air. The influenza vaccine (flu shot) can help protect you and your family from getting the flu.
  • Treatment: Typical cases don’t require treatment. Symptoms can be managed at home with medicine, sleep, and plenty of fluids. If your child is less than 2 years old, always check with your doctor. You should also consult your doctor if your child has other conditions that classify them as high risk. These conditions include asthma, heart disease, immunosuppression, etc.

Strep throat

  • Symptoms: Fever, stomach pain, red and swollen tonsils, throat pain.
  • Cause: Bacteria that live in the nose and throat. They spread easily when coughing or sneezing.
  • Treatment: A strep test will confirm strep in the doctor’s office. An antibiotic is the typical treatment.

Gastroenteritis (“stomach flu”)

  • Symptoms: Diarrhea, nausea, vomiting.
  • Cause: A virus that spreads through houses and schools quickly.
  • Treatment: It usually passes in a few days. Treatment at home should include plenty of rest, fluids, and hand washing.

Mononucleosis (“mono”)

  • Symptoms: Flu-like symptoms, including fever, muscle aches, tiredness, and sore throat.
  • Cause: The Epstein-Barr virus, which is spread by kissing, coughing, sneezing, or contact with saliva.
  • Treatment: Home treatment should include plenty of rest. Medicine can be given to ease pain, fever, or aching muscles.

Ear infection

  • Symptoms: Ear pain, fever, trouble swallowing or sleeping, tugging at ear in younger children.
  • Cause: When a virus or bacteria gets into the space behind the eardrum. It causes pus to build up. The pressure on the eardrum causes pain.
  • Treatment: Many doctors take a “wait and see” approach before recommending antibiotics. Antibiotics can’t help an ear infection caused by a virus. They often don’t help very much before the infection clears up on its own. Medicine can be given for pain at home.

Conjunctivitis (pinkeye)

  • Symptoms: Eye redness, swelling, discharge, eye discomfort, itching.
  • Cause: It can be caused by bacteria, a virus, allergies, or eye irritants such as chemicals. Those caused by bacteria or a virus are contagious.
  • Treatment: If the cause is bacterial, it is usually treated with antibiotic eye drops or ointment. Viral, allergic, and chemical conjunctivitis is not treated with antibiotics. Medicine can be given for discomfort. Warm or cool compresses can also help ease symptoms.

Head lice

  • Symptoms: Small bugs in the hair, eggs (nits) on hair shafts close to the scalp, itching head, small bumps or sores from scratching.
  • Cause: Tiny parasites that feed of tiny amounts of blood from the scalp. They are highly contagious, but they are not dangerous.
  • Treatment:Medicated treatments are available over the counter or by prescription. They include shampoo, cream rinse, or lotion. They kill the lice. Your doctor may recommend removing the nits after treatment using a fine-tooth comb.

Things to consider

For most of the illnesses listed here, home treatment or one trip to the doctor’s office is all you need. But sometimes kids show signs that aren’t normal. If your child is showing any of these symptoms, call your doctor right away:

  • Not drinking enough fluids
  • High fever, or fever with a rash
  • Rapid breathing or trouble breathing
  • Bluish skin color
  • Sleepy or lethargic
  • Confused or disoriented
  • Flu symptoms that get better, but then get worse
  • Not making urine at usual rate or amount

Questions to ask your doctor

  • How do I know if my child needs antibiotics?
  • Based on my child’s symptoms, should he or she be seen by the doctor?
  • What kind of treatment is best for my child?
  • What can I do at home to ease his or her symptoms?
  • What should I watch for that could mean there are complications?