Why do kids get sick?

Terreece M. Clarke
Columbus Parent

My toddler Olivia was a little over a year old when one night around 4 a.m. I awoke with a start and instinctively went to check on her. Her head, tummy and even her feet felt very hot to the touch. I freaked. My thoughts instantly went to fever-related brain damage and life-threatening disease.

"Get up quick, she's burning up!" I yelled at my husband. He jumped up and looked around as if he didn't know whether to take her temperature or get the fire extinguisher. I raced to grab my trusty thermometer and tube of

Vaseline and went where no baby wants a thermometer to go.

One hundred and four degrees. Cue intensified freak. I remember stripping her down, sending my husband off to get the phone and pausing briefly while I considered whether I should call our doctor. It was, after all, 4 a.m. Was I overreacting?

A quick chat with the doctor, a dose of Motrin for the baby, a piece of chocolate for me and an appointment for later in the day ensured everyone would feel better soon. It was just one episode in the ongoing battle against germs and sleep deprivation in my house of three kids under the age of 7.

Sick more often and longer

It's not all in our heads. According to the Mayo Clinic, kids under the age of 6 catch approximately six to eight colds a year, while adults average only two to four colds. "People say their kid is sick all the time, but really they are just getting the normal amount of colds," said Dr. William Cotton, medical director of the Primary Care Network for Nationwide Children's Hospital.

Kids in daycare tend to get sick more often because they are exposed to many more germs than they would be if they were at home. But kids who aren't in daycare at an early age tend to get sick more often when they enter school, Dr. Cotton said.

According to the Mayo Clinic, childhood illnesses offer a triple whammy because not only do kids get sick more often, their illnesses tend to last longer and include more symptoms. While the average adult cold lasts five to seven days, kids are lucky enough to hold on to their snot and other yuckies for 10. Adult colds consist of good old-fashioned nasal congestion, while wee ones battle through any combination of congestion, sore throat, cough, irritability, decreased appetite and sleep disruption.

Late night disturbances

Sick happens. So why does it turn into an Emmy award-winning drama between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m.? "It's more obvious at night," Dr. Cotton said. "The kid couldn't sleep during the day, but no one noticed. It's more obvious at night when you want to sleep, the kid wants to sleep, [but] no one can get any."

Dr. Cotton cites the change in pressure from lying horizontally as one cause for an increase in symptoms. During the day gravity helps drainage, while lying prone allows for the pooling of post-nasal drip. Some illnesses are worse in the evening, including croup Dr. Cotton said.

Dr. Alan Greene at Dr. Greene.com cites hormones as playing a role in nighttime illness. According to his website, in the daytime hormones can work to keep fevers at bay and reduce pain. At night, those same hormones are at lower levels, which allows your body to feel more pain and increase in temperature. Parents should observe a child with a fever to determine the best course of action.

"There are some viruses where [the fever is] 104 degrees and the child looks great, and others where the [child's] fever is 103 degrees and [they] look bad," Dr. Cotton said. "...never apologize for calling your doctor -- it's our job."

Dr. Cotton also recommends parents keep their children's immunizations up to date and get all children over the age of 6 months flu shots every year. While immunizations won't prevent the common cold, they will help protect kids from more serious illnesses and the flu shot provides double the protection. Kids fare better than seniors when they do contract the flu. "A good way to protect Grandma is to get your [child a] flu shot," Dr. Cotton said.

Terreece M. Clarke has been a freelance writer since 1999 for a variety of websites, magazines and newspapers. Terreece lives in Columbus with her husband and three children.


Fever facts:

Call a doctor if your child:

  • Is younger than age 3 months and has a rectal temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher.
  • Is older than age 3 months, has a temperature up to 102 degrees and appears especially irritable, lethargic or uncomfortable.
  • Is older than age 3 months and has a temperature of 102 degrees or higher that doesn't respond to over-the-counter medication or lasts longer than one day.

Common illnesses and treatment

The Mayo Clinic listed five common illnesses that strike kids:

  • Common cold: Treat with: fluids, rest, saline nose drops and humidifier.
  • Stomach flu: Treat with: plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration, rest and a B.R.A.T. diet (bananas, rice, applesauce and toast).
  • Ear infections: Treat with: warm, moist cloth over ear, pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. NEVER give aspirin to anyone younger than 18.
  • Pink eye: Treat bacterial pink eye with: antibiotic eye ointment or eye drops prescribed by physician. Treat viral pink eye with: cool compresses. Antibiotics are not effective against viruses.
  • Sore throat: Treat with: fluids, rest, humidifier and salt water gargle (in older children).