Viral Infections in Babies & Toddlers

Instructor: Marisela Duque

Marisela teaches nursing courses at the college level. She also works as a unit educator, teaching experienced nurses about changes in nursing practice.

After completing this lesson, you will have a better understanding of viral infections in babies and toddlers. A short quiz follows this lesson so that you can test your newfound knowledge.

What Is a Viral Infection?

A viral infection is caused by a type of germ called a virus. We cannot escape viruses--they are everywhere (which is kind of eerie). Think of a virus as a tiny monster whose purpose is to survive and multiply, and the only way to do this is to attack a host (a human body, for example). When a virus enters your body, it overhauls your cells, changing the way they work and forcing them to produce more of the virus. The scariest part is that there are hundreds of thousands of viruses out there just waiting for the right victim. Common diseases that are caused by viruses include varicella (chickenpox), common colds, and herpes.

If you didn't already think that viruses are creeps, then this will change your mind: They prefer to prey on the weak, such as babies and toddlers, the very old (like grandma), and the immunocompromised (people with weakened immune systems caused by disease or stress). This lesson will focus on how common viruses attack babies and toddlers.

Why Are Babies and Toddlers at Increased Risk?

Babies and toddlers seem to always be sick. Many parents joke that they feel like the pediatrician's office is a home away from home. In fact, it is normal for preschoolers (children under the age of five) to have 6 to 10 viral infections a year. Sometimes, they recover from one infection only to catch a different one, which is why it may seem like they're always sick.

Compared to healthy adults, babies and toddlers are more susceptible to infections because of their weaker immune systems. The immune system is the part of your body that fights infections. When a newborn is born, antibodies (good cells that kill infections) are passed from mom to baby during pregnancy. These antibodies help keep newborns healthy. Breastfeeding helps to increase these antibodies. But as children grow (after about six months, generally), mom's breast milk antibodies start to diminish. Due to this, babies and toddlers see an increase in infections.

Also, babies and toddlers are not the best at keeping clean to prevent infections. If you've ever watched a group of two-year-olds, then you may understand. They don't know how to blow their nose or wash their hands without help. Luckily, around age five, most children can master these skills, and their immune systems get stronger, leading to fewer infections.

How Are Viruses Spread?

Viruses can spread from person to person through very tiny droplets from the nose and mouth when people sneeze, cough, or wipe their runny noses. Viruses can also be transmitted through vomit or feces, especially when a child has diarrhea. Due to these multiple routes of transmission, viruses spread easily in places where kids are in close contact with each other (like daycare centers, parks, and kindergarten).

What Are the Symptoms?

The symptoms that the child experiences will depend on the virus. For example, chicken pox comes with itchy, blistery rashes on the skin, whereas the common cold tends to come with congestion, coughing, and runny nose. Many of the most common viral infections among babies and toddlers display a variety of the following:

  • Runny nose
  • Watery eyes
  • Sore throat
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Skin rash
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unusual tiredness

How Are Viruses Treated?

Unlike bacterial infections, viruses cannot be killed with antibiotics. Most viruses (like those that cause the common cold) are treated with symptom management at home until they run their course. Some viral infections may require medical attention and hospitalization in severe cases.

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