Head colds and head lice: a heads-up on autumn ailments

When the weather gets cold and damp, children are more susceptible to bugs, bumps and creepy-crawlies

Deep breath: children with asthma need their own individual plan for managing their symptoms. Photograph: getty images

Deep breath: children with asthma need their own individual plan for managing their symptoms. Photograph: getty images


Summer’s over, the children are back at school, and now’s the time for autumnal ailments to start kicking in. As we head into the colder weather, parents are anticipating their kids getting struck down by some winter-borne bug or infection. Relax: the onset of autumn and winter need not be soundtracked by snuffles, sneezes, coughs and wheezing. A few simple precautions can help your child stay healthy and happy. We spoke to a GP, Dr Marian McWade, about the most common illnesses that affect children starting the new school year, and get some advice on how to treat and prevent seasonal sickness.

Head Lice:
They followed me home, Mummy! As the kids get bedded into their school routine, they’re going to be bringing friends back home for playdates. But they may also be bringing some unwelcome visitors. The start of the school year is peak time for head lice, so check regularly using a nit comb, even if you don’t see your children scratching their heads.

“Parents usually look after their kids’ head lice themselves, but they might sometimes ask me for advice on treating them,” says McWade.

“The best method is to use a fine comb and go through the hair section by section to remove all lice. Don’t just rely on treatments: studies have shown that headlice can become resistant to some treatments, so when they come back the treatment doesn’t work on them.”

Hedrin is one treatment recommended for treating and preventing head lice, but no matter which product you use, you should take the time to do the fine-combing, getting out the nits, or eggs, which are usually found on individual hairs, along with the adult and young lice.

And don’t be ashamed: having headlice is not a mark of uncleanliness, and even children whose hair is washed daily can get headlice.

Head colds, chest infections and tonsillitis
We live in a damp climate and when the weather turns cold, children start to experience a range of upper-respiratory problems.

“It’s particularly noticeable in junior infants, because the children haven’t yet been exposed to a lot of infections. So they’ll catch colds much more easily,” says Dr McWade. “Tonsillitis is a big one - all the kids are getting that at the moment.”

The majority of upper-respiratory tract infections will be viral, says McWade, although symptoms of asthma will also be exacerbated by the cooler, damp weather. Wrapping up warm, while not 100 per cent effective, can help shield kids from colds.

“Good nutrition and good living standards are essential for keeping your child healthy during the winter months, and while it might not guarantee against catching colds, it helps to keep kids properly covered up and give them good, nutritious hot meals.”

Antibiotics are ineffective against viral infections; many parents bring their child to the doctor with a viral infection, only to be told to put them to bed, give them Calpol and that’ll be €70, please. But many of us still bring our child to the GP, just to get reassurance that it’s nothing more serious.

Parents whose children suffer from asthma know all too well the stress of winter time, as the inhalers are dug out from the back of the medicine cupboard, and ears are pricked up for the sounds of wheezing and persistent coughing. Asthma is different for every child, so there’s no one-size-fits-all method for preventing flare-ups.

“Each child should have an individual, personal plan for managing their asthma, so parents can have an idea when they’re more likely to have symptoms, and how much medication they need to prevent flare-ups.”

Sports injuries
With autumn comes the start of the new sports season, and a greater chance of getting a belt of a hurley or a hockey stick, or a kick from a stray boot. “You’ll get more impact injuries around this time of the year, from playing rugby, hurling and football,” says McWade. The advice? Make sure your child wears all the required protective gear for the sport they’re participating in, such as helmets, gumshields and shinguards. You could sign your child up for tiddlywinks, but who’s to say they won’t get hit in the eye by a misflicked counter?

Warts and v

Verrucas are still out there, says

McWade, and the swimming pool is still the place where they lurk. As children sign up for autumn swimming lessons, their chances of catching a verucca are increased.

Don’t put away the Crocs or flip-flops they wore during the summer, as they’ll be perfect for wearing around the pool area. Nor should you allow children to share towels.

Veruccas are simply warts that occur on the soles of the feet; they look flat because they’re pressed down by the foot, but they can feel uncomfortable. You can burn them off with a solution of salicylic acid, but the best way to clear up warts and veruccas, if they’re not bothering your children, is simply to leave them alone: 30 per cent will fall off within 10 weeks, while most will fall off within a year or two.

Ear infections
Ear infections are not contagious, since they’re bacterial and not viral. The bad news is that children, especially preschoolers, are very susceptible to them.

Ear infections are caused by inflammation of the middle ear following a build-up of fluid behind the eardrum.

They often occur after a child has had a cold or a sore throat, so after your child’s cold has cleared up, you may not be home and dry yet. A course of antibiotics, usually Amoxycillin, will be prescribed to clear up the infection, and a children’s paracetamol or ibuprofen should keep down any pain or discomfort.

So follow a few sensible steps, don’t panic, and your children should get through the winter without too many sick days.

You need to ensure that your children’s vaccinations are up to date. Your child should have their second dose of the MMR vaccine when starting school, and they also need to get the four-in-one vaccine that protects them from diphtheria, tetanus, polio and whooping cough. Public health staff will visit the school to administer the vaccines, but if your child happens to be out of school on that day, you can still get your child vaccinated through your GP.

It’s part of the Government’s child vaccination programme, so it’s free no matter which way you get it.

It’s important that every child is vaccinated, says McWade, because the consequences of not being immunised can be catastrophic. Last year, two babies died of whooping cough in Ireland; they caught the virus from adults who hadn’t been immunised.

Availing of vaccination programmes is vital for “herd immunisation”, says McWade. “Some children can’t be vaccinated because of an underlying health issue, but if a high enough percentage of the population is vaccinated, it’s beneficial to those who can’t be vaccinated. They’re protected by the herd.”

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