How to Prevent Common Childhood Illnesses

Prevention is always preferable to having to treat sick children.

What’s more challenging than dealing with the ever-changing demands of parenting? Dealing with sick children: They’re miserable, and you want to do everything you can to make them better, fast. Your first instinct might be to call your pediatrician for advice once they’re under the weather, but let’s face it: You’d rather they didn’t get sick in the first place. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by conflicting online research and advice, so we asked local pediatricians how to prevent and treat several common health problems, so your little one can get back to happy and healthy, fast.

Cold and Flu  

Among the most common and easily transmitted fall/winter/back-to-school illnesses, colds and flu can strike regularly, as they’re spread by mucus and saliva.

Symptoms: While a stuffy or runny nose, coughing, sore throat, and fever can be symptoms of both cold and flu, you’ll know if it’s the flu if your child is complaining—a lot. “I tell my parents all the time that snots are ok—kids are full of snots,” says Elissa Rubin, M.D., of Happy and Healthy Pediatrics in Mineola. “If they’re miserable, that’s what you should pay attention to and look to avoid.”

Causes: Sharing food or drink, or spending time in close contact with someone who is already sick

Prevention: The flu vaccine is the best preventative measure: Once your child is 6 months old, it’s safe to get it. Other than that, “there’s no bubble to put our kids in to avoid all germ exposure,” says Stanley Jacob, M.D., of Helping Kids Pediatrics in New City. But you can reduce the spread of germs by encouraging frequent hand washing to stop the illness from spreading.

Treatment: Lots of rest, and avoiding exposure to others who are sick will help; electrolyte-enhanced fluids such as chicken broth will go a long way toward helping strengthen the immune system to help it fight off infection.

RELATED: Is It the Common Cold or Something Serious?

Ear Infection

Aside from cavities, ear infections are one of the most common bacterial infections, and they occur when the middle ear becomes inflamed: Fluid builds up behind the eardrum, causing an earache. While five out of six kids will have one by their third birthday, these infections drop off by age 5 or 6.

Symptoms: While ear pain is the most recognizable (your child will probably tell you she’s hurting), look out for ear pulling, which could be a sign of wax buildup and/or infection.

Causes: In some children, viruses are the culprit; others might just be more prone to them. However, environmental factors such as smoking in the home or allowing your child to go to sleep with a bottle can also contribute.

Prevention: “There is no way to prevent an ear infection, but talk to your doctor if your child is having recurrent ones for a otolaryngology referral,” recommends Dyan Hes, M.D., medical director of Gramercy Pediatrics in Manhattan.

Treatment: While your initial reaction might be to agree to put your child on antibiotics, stat, many physicians and parents are opting for the “watch and wait” approach. “If a child comes in with pain and an infection and has a cold, the recommendation is to wait for 24 hours and see how they’re doing, rather than just knee-jerk prescribe antibiotics,” says Christina Johns, M.D., senior medical advisor for PM Pediatrics, which has locations in New Jersey and the New York metro area. “Sometimes they feel better naturally, and the body becomes better at getting rid of it faster.”

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In children without diabetes, the pancreas releases insulin into the bloodstream after meals, helping the body regulate blood sugar naturally; between meals, the liver releases stored glycogen and converts it into glucose, keeping blood sugar within a normal range. While the causes of Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes are different, both cause a buildup of sugar in the blood that needs to be regulated.

Symptoms: Extreme hunger, weight loss, excessive thirst, frequent urination, fatigue, irritability, and blurred vision

Causes: While Type 1 diabetes is thought to be caused by genetics or exposure to viruses such as Coxsackie or Epstein-Barr, as children’s lifestyles become increasingly more sedentary (thanks, television and technology!), Type 2 diabetes is becoming more common: “We think of Type 2 as adult-onset diabetes, but with the obesity epidemic on the rise, we’re seeing it in 9- and 10-year-old kids,” Dr. Johns says.

Prevention: There is no known way to prevent or cure Type 1—you’ll need to administer insulin shots for life—but Type 2 is avoidable. To prevent Type 2 diabetes, it’s important to be a good role model through your own exercise and dietary habits. “If you keep your children active with at least 30-45 minutes of exercise daily and limit television and video games to no more than two hours, you can stay ahead of the potential development of diabetes and manage it if it comes—hopefully prevent it,” Dr. Jacob says.

Treatment: If your child has Type 1 diabetes, topical anesthetics and a pep talk can ease the anxiety that can come with daily shots, Dr. Jacob says. A child psychiatrist can also assist with open communication about how to manage a chronic disease. For kids with Type 2, a healthy diet and daily exercise is key. Plus, studies have shown that people with diabetes tend to have low vitamin D, so adding dairy can help, too: Aim for two or three 8-ounce glasses of milk per day.

RELATED: Diabulimia: Is Your Teen at Risk?


While the occasional bout of sadness is normal, depression can often go untreated because parents mistake it for normal emotional or psychological changes that occur as your child matures—and early depression can also be masked by acting out.

Symptoms: Loss of interest in activities at home or school, hopelessness, appetite or sleep fluctuations, lack of energy, anxiety, anger, and not spending time with friends

Causes: Change in family setting (divorce, death of a family member, moving); bullying, academic or social pressure. Lack of parental connection can also be an issue: “We live in a generation where parents look at their cellphones more than their children,” Dr. Rubin says. Be aware that the causes of a child’s depression are not always apparent, and it may not take a major event or obvious problem to spark depression.

Prevention: Trust your instincts, and let your children know you’re there to talk (and just as importantly, listen) during the tough times. “Let them know that you’re there but be open minded, and remember what it was like to be their age,” Dr. Jacob advises. “Actively listen and engage, be observant and ask questions—but realize when they need space.”

Treatment: Since depression can be caused by neurotransmitters being out of balance, this is one case where a child’s psychiatrist can recommend medication—in combination with cognitive behavioral therapy—as a form of treatment. Just as important: Tending to your own mental health. “Parents need to be aware of their own anxieties, since issues from their own childhood often resurface,” adds Dr. Rubin. “Anxiety and depression is taught behavior. Break that cycle by being aware of your own emotions and monitoring them.”

RELATED: Is Your Teen Depressed or Just Acting His Age?


While some children are naturally heavier due to excess muscle from fat, bone, muscle, water, or a combination of all of the above, obesity is on the rise: According to the CDC, 1 in 6 children in the United States is obese.

Symptoms: Children are considered obese when their body mass index is at or above the 95th percentile compared to children of similar age and sex. (To calculate BMI, divide your child’s weight in kilograms by the square of their height in meters).

Causes: Poor diet and a lack of exercise are top causes, but stress (and the emotional eating response to it) can also be contributing factors, especially if you’re guilty of this as a parent. “If you eat when you’re stressed or relate emotions to food, kids will notice that and do it too,” Dr. Rubin says.

Prevention: Getting your kids interested in and excited about food at an early age is key. Try taking them to the store and letting them pick out their own fruits and vegetables, or allowing them to be involved in food preparation at home. Doing this will encourage kids to select fruit as a snack instead of sugary treats, Dr. Johns says. Another tip: Instead of rewarding accomplishments like a great report card with ice cream, ask your child what activity or outing he wants to do to celebrate instead.

Treatment: If your child isn’t involved or interested in sports, take a walk with her, or offer to watch him doing his favorite activity. “What kids like more than anything is attention,” Dr. Johns says. “Whether it’s jumping rope or shooting hoops, they’ll be more likely to do something if you watch and give them positive feedback.”

RELATED: What You Should Know About Childhood Obesity


If you’re wondering if your child’s cough could possibly be asthma, consider this: Most children with asthma have symptoms before age 5 and experience recurring coughing or wheezing that gets worse in the presence of irritants such as smoke or dust mites.

Symptoms: Coughing at night, wheezing while breathing out, and/or fast breathing that causes the skin to tighten around the neck or ribs. A good test if you can’t tell: Have your child take a deep breath. If he starts coughing at the end or has spastic, relentless coughing fits, he likely has asthma, Dr. Rubin says.

Causes: Although allergens and exercise can trigger asthma, the change in seasons can, too—especially the cold, dry air that winter brings. Genetics can also play a part, and so can your family pet (but don’t worry, you won’t need to get rid of it!)

Prevention: If your household has pets, your pediatrician can administer a blood test to find out if your fluffy loved ones are the culprit. If they are, don’t worry: You can limit the pet to certain rooms in the house, or install a HEPA air filter to purify air in your child’s room. Cleaning your home regularly (to reduce dust) and not smoking indoors can also help her breathe easy.

Treatment: While a rescue inhaler can help children with intermittent asthma ward off periodic attacks, children with prolonged attacks will need to administer medication from a controller inhaler daily. Regardless of the type of asthma your child has, it’s wise to have an inhaler on hand—at home and at school. “Kids will let you know when they have tightness in their chest and ask for relief,” Dr. Rubin adds.

RELATED: Managing Your Child’s Asthma & Preventing an Attack


Also known as enuresis, bedwetting is a common childhood problem that can be embarrassing for children, and frustrating and stressful for parents. The good news is that it’s usually easy to treat and typically stops on its own as your child learns how to control his or her bladder during the late stages of potty training.

Symptoms: Touch your child’s sheets in the morning. If they’re wet or she comes downstairs with wet PJs, you’ll know something’s up.

Causes: While some children can inherit it from their parents, others fall into such a deep sleep that their bladder just lets go. Even if your child is already potty trained when it occurs, younger children often regress due to divorce, separation, or during life changes, such as moving.

Prevention: Behavioral change, such as limiting drinks and caffeine prior to bedtime, can help. In addition, products designed to treat the condition, called wet stop alarms, trigger an alarm that reminds your child to get up to use the bathroom.

Treatment: Whatever you do, don’t make your child feel ashamed. Some children experience it until age 9 or 10, and pull-ups are a great solution to avoid frequent loads of laundry. Finally, don’t torture yourself thinking you’re doing something wrong. “No child will go to college wearing a diaper—they just need time to mature,” Dr. Rubin says.

RELATED: Does Your Child Wet His Pants During the Day?


Any parent who’s had to comfort her child in the middle of the night knows that nightmares are a common—but easily fixed—childhood health problem. While young children in their “afraid of the dark” phase are most susceptible to nightmares, they can affect children at any age.

Symptoms: Luckily, this one’s easy: Your child will likely let you know that she’s scared to go to bed (or wake you in the middle of the night, looking for comfort).

Causes: Fear of the dark, lack of sleep, exposure to scary or unsettling TV without context

Prevention: “Parents should make sure that children aren’t exposed to anything frightening on the TV or Internet, and discuss if there are any stressors leading to nightmares. Often, they will pass with time,” Dr. Hes says.

Treatment: “There’s not much a parent can do but comfort during these times,” Dr. Hes says. A night-light, bedtime security object, or temporary distraction—such as face-washing, a back rub, or calming conversation about what’s troubling them—can help soothe them back to sleep.

RELATED: Night Terrors: Diagnosis, Treatment, and Resources

Remember, no child is healthy all the time and no amount of preventative effort is going to be 100-percent effective. So don’t beat yourself up when your child gets sick, and focus instead on giving her the TLC and medical care she needs to get back on her feet as quickly as she can!

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