Just Because It’s a Virus, Doesn’t Mean Your Child is not Sick

February 12th, 2013 posted by Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, MD, FAAP

By the time we become adults, our bodies are old pros at battling the most common of pathogens we face, viruses. Our kids, however, are still developing. Their immune systems are still gaining experience with the world so they get many more illnesses than we do each cold and flu season, 6-12 a year on average. That’s a lot of missed school and work days each year, especially when you consider a typical virus lasts 10-14 days. It’s no wonder parents hear “virus” and begin to panic. I often get the impression that people don’t consider a viral diagnosis as something real. On the contrary, viral illnesses are true illness and can be very severe. Historically, some of the worst epidemics of our time have been viral. Thanks to immunizations, we hardly see many of those viruses any more, such as polio, measles, mumps and chicken pox, but they are still out there and we would become susceptible if we stopped our efforts to immunize. // Viral illnesses account for over 90% of illness that any of us, including our kids, will get annually. While bacterial illnesses tend to be caused by a few specific organisms, there are hundreds of viruses that cause the most common of viral infections we catch such as the flu, colds, bronchitis, sinusitis, and GI bugs. Unlike bacterial illnesses which usually cause a well defined illness and impact a specific area of the body, viral illnesses are much more nonspecific. Typical symptoms are body wide and include fever, chills, cough, runny nose, sneezing, body aches, and decreased appetite. Some people will also get GI symptoms with nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Even though we don’t have medications to battle specific viruses as we do with bacterial illnesses and antibiotics, there are still many things we can do to help our bodies battle the next virus they encounter:

Fever control with acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

Cooking with fever can be very uncomfortable and is very energy draining. So, trying to keep your child’s fever down will make them feel a great deal better overall. Dosing is done by weight and your pediatrician’s office can advise you on the best dose for your child. For reluctant medicine takers or children with vomiting, acetaminophen comes in rectal suppository form.


Even if kids won’t eat well when sick, it is very important that they stay hydrated. Hydration solutions like Gatorade and Pedialyte work well in this setting and provide the salts and sugars a body needs to stay fueled while battling an illness. Don’t worry if your child won’t drink an entire bottle or cup at once. Small sips over time, popsicles, Jell-O and ice chips can work just as well.


Battling an illness is exhausting. You can expect your child to be a bit more tired than usual and need more breaks than normal once they get back to their normal routine.


We all lose our appetites when sick but unless there are GI symptoms we have to try to get some food in. Even Jell-O, toast and soups go a long way in keep blood sugar up and giving our body fuel needed to fight the infection.

What about school?

Kids can’t learn well when feeling drained and sick, and are contagious when febrile. Your child can return to school when fever free for 24 hours, and when he or she has enough oomph to get through the school day.

What about work for you?

A grownup should be with any child who is sick enough to miss school or daycare, including teenagers. Your pediatrician can provide your employer with a note if needed. The Family Medical Leave Act does protect your job while caring for a sick child.

What if your child does not get better as expected?

Call your doctor. Bacterial infections can develop in the footsteps of a virus. Look for a sudden worsening in a child who was getting better, a return of fever or development of new symptoms. You’ll want to get your child reevaluated should any of these situations occur. When I was a child, my grandparents would use chicken soup to cure just about everything. Chicken soup, in fact, has been used since the 12th century to combat illness. It tastes good, so kids will likely eat it. It counts as a fluid to help your child stay hydrated. The steam can unclog stuffy noses. And, current research suggests there may be a protein in the soup that reduces the inflammation caused by the virus. So, next time your child is sick, focus on what you can control, like making chicken soup or buying your child’s favorite Popsicle, and less on what you can’t control. You’ve heard the adage chicken soup is good for your soul? Now you know why. © 2005 – 2006 Pediatrics Now. All rights reserved. PEDIATRICS NOW™ is a trademark of Pediatrics Now

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Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, MD, FAAP (36 Posts)

Pediatrician, Dr. Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician and Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Gwenn is an experienced columnist, educator, and practicing pediatrician. Dr. Gwenn strives to write as if she were talking to a parent. As a parent herself, she knows how important it is to obtain information but also understand how precious little time parents have to find that information on the internet. Pediatrics Now was developed to fill that gap and provide a bridge between the parenting and pediatrics worlds.

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