December 14, 2023

Addressing Upper Respiratory Infections in Kids

Primary Care
Respiratory Infections In Kids

As a parent or caregiver, how do you know when a cough is “just” a cough or when it might be something more serious? Upper respiratory infections are common in kids, especially during cold and flu season.

Dr. Catherine Sweeney, pediatrician at Fort HealthCare, shares important information about these types of infections, including treatment options.

Different Strains, Similar Symptoms

A number of different respiratory infections exist, but they all cause similar symptoms. “When we’re talking upper respiratory infections, we’re thinking of any type of viral infection in the upper airway, which includes the nose, sinuses, throat, and the upper part of the trachea,” explains Dr. Sweeney. “There are dozens of viruses we can test for, and all of those viruses have sub-strains as well. Some of the big ones you may have heard the names of include RSV, COVID, rhinovirus, parainfluenza viruses, and the list goes on.”

RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, is one infection in particular that can become problematic if not addressed in a timely manner. It is one of the primary reasons for child hospitalizations in the colder months.

“RSV, especially for younger children, infants, and toddlers, can impact the very small airways in the lungs and cause difficulties with breathing,” notes Dr. Sweeney. “Those patients might have either fast breathing or labored breathing, but possibly even low oxygen levels. That can be very serious, which will lead those kids to be evaluated in the ER, and possibly even a hospital stay.”

There is an RSV vaccine, but it’s not applicable to everyone. This vaccine is administered to individuals aged 60 and older, infants under eight months old, and pregnant women in their third trimester.

Treatment Options

The most common upper respiratory infection symptoms are generally runny nose, congestion, and cough, with or without a fever. What drives bringing children to medical attention rests on how long symptoms have been present and their severity. In some cases, symptoms can be addressed at home with over-the-counter cough and cold medicines, nasal saline spray/suction, and applying humidity (steamy shower, humidifier). In other cases, a doctor’s visit is necessary.

“When people, especially younger kids, are running high fevers for several days, it’s really important we get them seen. Because, when we have any of these viral infections, it can be a setup for a bacterial infection to take hold—and take advantage of our immune system being busy fighting off the virus,” cautions Dr. Sweeney. “So, we want to make sure there’s nothing going on with your sinuses in terms of an infection, with ear infections, or potentially even pneumonia.”

Once assessed, pediatricians can then determine the best course of treatment. No matter what, Dr. Sweeney advises parents and caregivers to err on the side of caution when considering a trip to the doctor’s office.

“If ever in doubt, I would recommend they call their physician’s or provider’s office, talk to the triage staff who are great in helping them know where to go, or call the after-hours on-call provider. We’re more than happy to help direct patients if they need to go to urgent care now or if they can wait and be seen in clinic.”