Your guide to childhood respiratory illnesses

Posted on March 13th, 2018

When is a cold just a sniffle, or when should you seek medical attention? Lynn Gidish shares a mom’s easy guide to winter respiratory illnesses.

Your guide to childhood respiratory illnesses

Respiratory infections in children are very common, especially in children who have siblings or attend day-care or school.

Your child will develop an average of six respiratory infections each year. Aside from the common cold and the flu that produce symptoms mainly in the nose and throat, viruses also commonly causes infections in small children’s lower respiratory tracts (the windpipe, airways and lungs).

Lower respiratory tract infections such as croup, bronchitis, bronchiolitis and pneumonia, invade the cells and trigger inflammation and mucus production.

This leads to nasal congestion, a runny nose, a scratchy throat and coughing, which can last up to 14 days.

Fever with a temperature as high as 39°C to 41°C is also very common.

ALSO SEE: How to treat your baby’s fever

It’s usually not necessary to run off to your health practitioner at the very first sign of illness, as there are many things you can do to help your child.

When to seek medical advice for childhood respiratory illnesses

  • If symptoms don’t improve within three to five days, last more than 10 – 14 days, or deteriorate suddenly
  • If there’s respiratory distress, fast breathing and the use of rib/tummy muscles to aid breathing
  • If your child improves but then develops a high fever again
  • If your child takes in less fluids and urinates less than three times a day (a sign of dehydration)
  • If there’s a marked decrease in activity and responsiveness
  • If there are any signs of lethargy and ‘floppiness’.

Important Note: All babies under the age of 12 weeks with a fever higher than 39.5°C should see a doctor.

How to help your child when they have a respiratory infection

These tips apply to all the below respiratory infections.

  • Place a wedge underneath your child’s pillow in her pram or cot to elevate her to a 45-degree angle (or elevate the bed for older children). This will help your child to get rid of the mucous and to breathe more easily.
  • Steaming is a great way to open the lungs and to loosen mucus, so that your child can cough it out. Steam with a bowl of hot water or spend some time together in the bathroom with a hot shower running.
  • Avoid giving your child any mucus-producing foods like cow’s milk products, bananas, grapes and refined sugar.
  • Prevent dehydration by constantly pushing fluids (cooled boiled water or diluted fruit juice). Rehydration solutions from your local pharmacy or health store will make a big difference to your child’s energy levels and recovery.
  • Always allow your child enough time to recover fully before getting back to play school, swimming lessons, etc. This will help to prevent either a relapse or another opportunistic infection.

ALSO SEE: 5 tried-and-tested products to help keep your child healthy all year round

Common childhood respiratory illnesses and how to treat them

The common cold

The common cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract. It’s one of the most common causes of infection and is most prevalent in early childhood. It’s caused by viruses – usually the rhinoviruses – which are spread both by contact and via airborne droplets.


  • Runny nose
  • Itchy or sore throat
  • Cough
  • Congestion
  • Body aches and mild headache
  • Sneezing
  • Watery eyes
  • Low-grade fever
  • Mild fatigue

Medical treatment

Because a cold is a virus no antibiotics are used, and treatment is symptomatic, such as saline nose spray or suction for blocked noses, paracetamol or ibuprofen for fever, and paediatric cough syrup for coughs. Push fluids to prevent dehydration.

The natural approach

Heat works wonders when mucus from a cold, post-nasal drip or croup is a problem – either in the form of a hot drink/soup, or by using steam. Essential oils like eucalyptus, pine, peppermint, cedarwood, rosemary, niaouli, basil, cloves, thyme, tea tree oil and lemon, are all very useful to relieve congestion, inflammations, mucus and breathing difficulties. Rub onto the chest and sinus areas, as well as the nose.

You can also use these essential oils as inhalers with steam. Pour hot water in a bowl and add three drops of essential oil. Place your child on your lap with her head about 30cm above the bowl. Cover yourselves with a towel, so that a tent is formed. Let your child breathe the essential oil-infused steam for one to two minutes. Sitting in the bathroom with the hot water running in a bath or shower will also do the trick.

ALSO SEE: Is it safe to use home remedies to treat my sick child?

When to seek professional help

Colds are usually self-limiting and most patients recover within a week or so. In general, children tend to be far sicker than adults when it comes to a cold. They often develop complications due to a secondary bacterial infection. Seek medical attention if symptoms persist, worsen or change, or if you feel at all concerned.


Influenza, also known as flu, is a viral infection that commonly affects the throat, lungs and nose. The infection spreads through inhaled droplets or direct contact with objects that an infected person has touched. It’s often confused with a common cold, but there are two main differences: symptoms develop far more rapidly, and they tend to be far more severe.


Infants and young children are usually unable to communicate their specific symptoms and just appear cranky and uncomfortable. Watch out for the following:

  • Fever
  • Aching muscles
  • Sweating and chills
  • Headaches and body aches
  • Dry cough
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • A runny or stuffy nose
  • Nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea (most common in children).

Medical treatment

Like the common cold, the flu is viral in nature. Therefore, it’s treated symptomatically. The most important thing is to bring down the high fever which is making your child feel achy and miserable. Paracetamol or ibuprofen given every six hours should help here. So will undressing you child and keeping her cool by immersing her in a tepid bath or by using a fan in the room. Saline nose spray or paediatric nose drops will help blocked noses, while paediatric cough syrups will loosen tight chests.

The natural approach

Aside from alleviating symptoms in the same way as a cold, a number of homeopathic remedies like Eupatorium and Ferrum Phosphoricum or tissue salt no 4, will help your child. Talk to your homeopath about flu-specific homeopathic preparations that are safe for the whole family (including young infants).

ALSO SEE: What you need to know about the flu vaccine

When to seek professional help

While most cases of flu are self-limiting, children under the age of five are considered high risk. So it’s important that you monitor your little one closely. Temperatures that won’t settle need urgent medical attention. So does any sign of deterioration, as there’s a high risk of secondary infections leading to complications like pneumonia.


Tonsillitis is the inflammation of the tonsils; both viruses and bacteria cause the infection.

Click here for the symptoms and treatment options.


Pharyngitis is an inflammation of the pharynx that lies at the back of the throat. The most common cause of pharyngitis is viral, but there can be bacterial causes too, such as a streptococcal infection.


  • Sore throat
  • Fever
  • Sneezing
  • Nasal congestion
  • Headache
  • Hoarseness
  • Skin rash

Medical treatment

Treat your child symptomatically (the same as for cold and flu). Most children with pharyngitis usually get better within a couple of days.

The natural approach

Chamomile tea with lemon and honey are soothing and healing, while sucking on an ice-lolly will soothe an inflamed throat. Gargling with a ¼ tsp of salt dissolved in 250ml warm water will also help if your child is old enough to do so. Steaming (see colds) or running a humidifier in the room, will help. Also consider Bryonia and Lachesis Muta. Chat to your homeopath about both of these remedies.

ALSO SEE: What you should know about humidifiers and how to choose the best one

When to seek professional help

If left untreated, Streptococcal Pharyngitis may cause rheumatic fever in children older than two. Always consult your medical practitioner for any persistent sore throat or fever, as your child may need antibiotics to treat the strep infection.


Croup often begins as a typical cold.

Click here for the symptoms and treatment options.


Pneumonia is loosely described as an infection of the lung’s air sacs, caused by bacteria, viruses, parasites and other organisms (that your toddler picked up from the floor and got lodged in her lungs.) Infected air sacs become inflamed and can be filled with fluid, pus or phlegm. This makes breathing uncomfortable and sometimes painful.


Pneumonia often presents with a range of symptoms, depending on the underlying cause.

Most often, children will have symptoms like:

  • Fever
  • Sweating
  • Chills
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle aches
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Coughing

Newborns and infants may not show any signs of the infection, or they may vomit, have a fever and cough, appear restless, tired and lethargic, or have difficulty breathing and eating.

ALSO SEE: Different types of coughs and how to treat them

When to seek professional help

Pneumonia can be very severe and your child may develop other problems like septicaemia. Her condition can deteriorate very quickly, so seek immediate medical attention at the first sign of floppiness and unresponsiveness. This is especially the case in children under the age of two, as pneumonia can quickly become life threatening.

Medical treatment

Complications of pneumonia can be severe and life threatening. So it’s important to consult a qualified medical practitioner for a thorough examination and management if your child has any of the abovementioned symptoms.

Medical treatment depends on the cause and severity of symptoms, but mostly includes physio and antibiotics. Your child will more than likely require medication that is administered to the infected lung tissue using a nebuliser. This will help relieve her tight chest and shortness of breath. Once she has been treated, she should rest.

Full recovery is expected within seven to 10 days of treatment if the pneumonia is caught early. But bear in mind that once the infection has been resolved, it can take your little one four to six weeks to regain both strength and stamina.

Natural treatment

Pneumonia can be treated homoeopathically with a number of remedies, including Bryonia and Phosphorus. Remedies will vary according to your child’s symptoms. Your natural health practitioner will advise you about the best choices.


Bronchitis often develops from a cold, which results in inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes (which carry air to and from the lungs).

Click here for the signs and symptoms and treatment options.


Bronchiolitis is a common lung infection in young children and infants that causes congestion in small airways (bronchioles) of the lung. It is usually caused by a virus.


Bronchiolitis starts out with symptoms similar to a cold (runny or stuffy nose, cough and slight fever). Then follows coughing, wheezing and sometimes difficulty breathing. An ear infection often occurs simultaneously.

Medical treatment

Steam and symptomatic treatment may settle your child. Very young babies should be taken to hospital and put into an oxygen tent with humidity, as they can deteriorate rapidly.

The natural approach

The same as for bronchitis.

When to seek professional help

Bronchiolitis can be very severe – your baby could struggle to breathe and become exhausted. It’s vital to see a doctor if she has any of these symptoms: vomiting, breathing more than 60 breaths per minute, breathing very shallowly, her skin turns blue (especially lips and fingernails), lethargy, refusing to eat or drink, distress when breathing (the ribs are sucked in when try to get air in).


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