COVID, the Flu, Croup, or Strep Throat? How to Understand Your Child's Symptoms

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Close up of a young family consulting with their doctor over a digital tablet
Close up of a young family consulting with their doctor over a digital tablet

Lately, parents have been trained to have tunnel vision with their children's health. It seems the only diagnosis that matters to keep their kid in daycare or school is COVID-19. Bayo Curry-Winchell, MD, a Regional Clinical Director at Carbon Health and a family-medicine doctor, has seen first-hand how the pandemic has "changed the dynamic" of how we operate as parents when our kids get sick.

If they test negative for COVID, "we're like, 'You're OK, you'll be fine,'" she told POPSUGAR. And while she agrees that is often the case, parents should stay vigilant about monitoring their child's health.

Related: A Doctor Shares What to Know About Your Child's Antibodies After They've Had COVID

"We need to remind ourselves that there's so many other illnesses beyond COVID. RSV, the flu, strep . . ." she said, adding that even if a child tests positive for COVID, there may still be other seasonal illnesses popping up. "I always say, 'there's no rule you can't get more than one illness at the same time. It's not like your body says, 'you have pneumonia, you can't get an ear infection.'"

Curry-Winchell offered a quick run-down of the common, non-COVID ailments she's been seeing pop up most often in her practice.

The Common Cold

Cold symptoms are usually mild, she said. If you notice sneezing, a "tickly throat," or a runny or stuffy nose, it's likely the culprit. A low-grade fever is rare, but possible.

Treatment: There's no test for the common cold and no specific treatment other than over-the-counter medications to ease discomfort as it runs its course.

The Flu

Curry-Winchell has seen a lot of flu cases, up from last winter, when people were isolating more. "And I'm seeing flu and COVID together," she said. "It's hard because there's so many crossover symptoms. And for kids, they aren't always aware of how to verbalize their symptoms. They're not going to come in and say, 'I have body aches.'"

Often, kids with the flu feel worse than with a cold or even COVID. They might have a fever that comes on suddenly, headaches, and chills, and they may lose their appetite or have nausea, vomiting or diarrhea.

Treatment: A doctor can check if your child has the influenza virus with a test. Most kids with the flu can recover at home by drinking plenty of liquids and getting rest. Sometimes an antiviral medicine may be prescribed to ease symptoms and shorten the illness. Of course, many cases of the flu can be prevented with an annual flu vaccine.

Strep Throat

Curry-Winchell said there's been a large up-tick in cases of strep throat, which also have similar symptoms to both the flu and COVID. "Strep throat also comes with sore throats and fevers, so I always encourage my parents to use their phone's flashlight and take a look inside their kid's throat." Red and swollen tonsils, sometimes with white patches, are common indicators of a bacterial infection like strep.

"Another factor, especially if your kid isn't verbal yet, is if they aren't eating or drinking as much," she said. "It might not be a loss of appetite but simply because it's painful to eat or drink or swallow, so they just don't do it."

Treatment: Although a strep throat could be viral, which means no antibiotics are needed, parents should still have their child seen by their doctor in case it is bacterial. In that case, it could spread. Oral antibiotics like penicillin are commonly used to treat strep throat.

Croup

Croup is an upper respiratory infection that typically occurs in children from six months to three years old, and it causes a loud, barking cough and hoarse voice.

Over the past month, pediatricians have recently noted that children under five years old infected with the Omicron variant are actually presenting with similar symptoms. Translation: patients with croup-like symptoms are actually testing positive for COVID. Because of this, if you think your child has croup, Curry-Winchell suggests also getting a COVID test to be safe.

Treatment: Croup usually isn't serious, lasts for three to five days, and can usually be treated at home.

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