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News, Child Health | 6 months ago

Now I know my ABCs…of sick season

Sick season is never easy, but at least you can be prepared. From strep and RSV to cold and flu, learn the symptoms and where to go if your child gets sick.

Parents and caregivers spend a lot of time teaching their children to share but, unfortunately, one common thing all children manage to share without being taught is germs. Between daycare and school, fun festivals and holiday activities, the fall and winter months generally coincide with an influx of sicknesses. 

Thankfully, your team at Atrium Health Levine Children’s is here to help you manage every illness from A to Z. To help your family prepare specifically for the sick season, Dr. Hebah Pranckun at Atrium Health Levine Children's Stanly Pediatrics shares what you need to know about the most common illnesses seen during the fall and winter months, including symptoms and where to go for treatment.

Most common illnesses

“Colds, flus, and other respiratory viruses are the most common illnesses we see during the fall and winter months,” says Pranckun. “Some of these include viruses like influenza, RSV, rhinoviruses and covid. We see rises in bacterial infections such as strep throat as well.”

Pranckun explains that many of these illnesses can be difficult to determine without expert care as they have overlapping symptoms such as cough, congestion, runny nose, aches, sore throat, sneezing, headache, vomiting, diarrhea or fever.

“You may notice your child be more tired than usual, have a smaller appetite, or complain of random aches and pains,” she says. “Talking to your local pediatrician can help you identify the cause of these different symptoms and determine the best way to treat them.”

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, here is a brief overview of the most common illnesses:

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV): RSV, is a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms. However, RSV can be serious, especially in infants and older adults who are more likely to develop severe RSV and need hospitalization.

RSV may not be severe when it first starts. However, it can become more severe a few days into the illness. Early symptoms of RSV may include a runny nose, eating or drinking less, and cough, which may progress to wheezing or difficulty breathing.

Infants who get an RSV infection almost always show symptoms. This is different from adults, who can sometimes get RSV infections and not exhibit symptoms. In very young infants (less than 6 months old), the symptoms of RSV infection may include irritability, decreased activity, eating or drinking less, apnea (pauses in breathing for more than 10 seconds), and fever (though fever may not always occur with RSV infections).

Covid (coronavirus): Covid is a disease caused by a virus named SARS-CoV-2. It can be very contagious and spreads quickly. Covid most often causes respiratory symptoms that can feel much like a cold, the flu, or pneumonia. Most people with covid have mild symptoms, but some people become severely ill.

Symptoms may include: fever or chills; cough; muscle or body aches; sore throat; nasal congestion or runny nose; headache; diarrhea; nausea; shortness of breath or difficulty breathing; and loss of smell or taste. 

Streptococcus (strep throat): Strep throat is a mild infection in the throat and tonsils that can be very painful. Doctors can do a quick test to see if a sore throat is strep throat. Antibiotics can help people with strep throat feel better faster and prevent spreading it to others.

Symptoms include: fever; pain when swallowing; sore throat that can start very quickly and may look red; red and swollen tonsils; white patches or streaks of pus on the tonsils; tiny, red spots on the roof of the mouth; and swollen lymph nodes in the front of the neck. 

Influenza (flu): Influenza is a very contagious viral infection that affects the air passages of the lungs. It's one of the most severe and common viral illnesses of the winter season. Most children are ill with the flu for less than a week. But some children have a more serious illness and may need to be treated in the hospital.

Symptoms include fever (which may be as high as 103°F to 105°F); body aches; headache; sore throat; cough that gets worse; tiredness; and a runny or stuffy nose. In some cases, your child may also have symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

The difference between cold and flu

It’s important to note that a cold and the flu have different symptoms:

Cold symptoms

Flu symptoms

Low or no fever

High fever

Sometimes a headache

Headache in most cases

Stuffy, runny nose

Clear nose, or stuffy nose in some cases


Sneezing in some cases

Mild, hacking cough

Cough, often turning severe

Mild body aches

Severe body aches

Mild tiredness

Extreme tiredness (fatigue) that can last weeks

Sore throat

Sore throat in some cases

 A cold is usually mild and often goes away after a few days. The flu can cause severe symptoms and lead to problems, especially in children, such as pneumonia and even death, so it’s important to see your pediatrician for a diagnosis.

Here to help finding the right level of care

“Because each child is different and every situation is unique, it is important to contact your pediatrician’s office to see if you should take your child in for evaluation,” Pranckun emphasizes. “Anytime there is concern for life threatening illness, proceed to get medical attention immediately. Your pediatrician’s nurse triage line or the nurse chat feature on the MyAtrium app can help in making these decisions.”

Levine Children’s on-demand video visits and eVisits are additional ways to help you get convenient, expert care without leaving your home. You can be virtually connected to your pediatrician or even receive urgent care video assistance. Video visits are a great option for initial assessment of minor conditions, like cold, flu or COVID-19 symptoms, seasonal allergies, pink eye and urinary tract infections (UTIs), while eVisits give you the ability to fill out a questionnaire with your symptoms and a member of the care team will follow up with a treatment plan within a few hours. 

How to avoid illnesses

Unfortunately, there is no sure way to avoid every illness, but the key to avoiding most common illnesses is to keep your body as strong as possible and stay away from illness when able.

“Ways to do this include frequent handwashing, getting any available vaccines that prevent serious illness, eating a good, healthy diet, and getting plenty of rest,” says Pranckun. “While masking is no longer a requirement, it may be a good idea when going into any environment with high risk of illness.”

Don’t be misled

There are many misconceptions when it comes to common fall and winter ailments. Pranckun helps debunk some of the frequent misconceptions by revealing some not commonly known truths:

  • Antibiotics do not help viruses, like the flu, RSV and COVID.
  • Green mucous does not mean your child has a bacterial infection.
  • Though not as common, colds can cause fevers too.
  • Just because you do not have a fever, does not mean you are not contagious.
  • Dairy is not bad for colds and flus. In fact, it is a good source of vitamins and protein when your child’s appetite is likely down.
  • The flu shot will not give a child the flu. Because it is a dead or inactivated form of the virus, you cannot get sick from it. However, because it triggers an immune response, there may be mild side effects that feel similar to the flu.
  • No over-the-counter medications will cure a virus. They may help symptoms, but make sure to talk to your pediatrician about what is safe to use in your child.

When in doubt, the best piece of advice Pranckun has, “talk to your pediatrician. We can help you navigate the confusion of the fall and winter seasons.”

Don’t go through this sick season alone, find an Atrium Health Levine Children’s expert near you.