Winter sniffles start early for families

By Danielle Galvin

In early 2021, doctors warned they were seeing a nasty resurgence of respiratory illnesses, starting earlier in the season and impacting younger children.

Health professionals were seeing an increasing presence of the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) among young children.

Royal Children’s Hospital paediatrician, Dr Lexi Frydenberg, said it was a significant increase.

“At the hospital we have had a 10-20 per cent increase in presentations to emergency compared to winter,” she explained.

“February and March has been worse than most winters.

“There’s been a significant increase in the hospital emergency department and the wards have been incredibly busy, predominantly viruses and common bugs.”

For some children, RSV presents as a mild cold, a runny nose, sore throat, but in others it can cause bronchiolitis.

“We didn’t see it last year which was incredible and we thought maybe we would have a great year ahead.

“What’s happened [is] we have had a late resurgence.”

In 2020, with schools shut down and kids at home for months on end, there wasn’t a notable cold and flu season.

With social distancing, extra hand washing, and all of the COVID-19 precautions, health professionals noticed fewer viruses around.

Dr Frydenberg, who has spoken to parents in an online community called Mama You’ve Got This, said she was hearing anecdotally how rough it had been.

“What happens with your immune system, the more you face bugs, the more your immune system is primed; it develops anti bodies so you can fight infection better,” she explained.

“What happened last year, particularly in the younger kids who haven’t faced many bugs before, they are what we call immunologically naïve, which means their bodies haven’t had to develop anti bodies and other techniques to fight acquired infection.

“So what’s happening now, their body is getting hit and they are having to work really hard to fight the infection.”

But she said the positive out of the COVID-19 experience is how much more aware parents and children are about spreading bugs and infection control.

“The hope and the positive out of this whole COVID nightmare is that all of us know techniques to decrease the prevalence of viruses an viral infections and I think as a society we are much better.

“Previously you would send your child to school with a sniffle give them a Panadol.

“Whereas now we are much more aware and conscious and cautious and school will send them home.”

While some might be getting complacent, Dr Frydenberg said Melburnians had shown how they can step up and wear masks, and other measures.

She hopes parents don’t take their child out of childcare, even if the bugs and constant sickness is hard to manage.

“You need to be exposed to bugs,” she said.

“My take on it with childcare in general your child is going to be exposed, the immune system needs to learn to build up.

“Sending them to childcare it can be onerous to parents who are working when it feels like your child is always sick, but it’s not a bad thing and it usually means by the time your child goes to school they are much less likely to develop infections because they have built up their system.”

Another common question she fields from parents is about the need to give your child supplements.

“People always ask do their kids need supplements, and really the take is that if your child has a varied and generally good diet they will get all the vitamins and minerals they need,” she explained.

“Even picky eaters are usually not vitamin deficient.”

“You actually only need a small amount of minerals and vitamins to function well and have good adequate nutrition.”

Dr Frydenberg does recommend getting a blood test and seeing your GP if you are concerned, particularly if your child is showing signs of an iron deficiency.

“If they have just got low iron stores, you might not notice,” she said.

“When they become iron deficient and anaemic, the signs are usually they might become more pale particularly under the eyes, tiredness so they might sleep more, in younger kids they become more irritable and grumpy the behaviour might change.

“I think we probably underestimate what iron is for brain development and behaviour.

“If we have a child who is lethargic, behaviourally difficult, pale or if say they are a really fussy eater … if you take a dietary history and they don’t have many iron rich foods, but they do have a lot of milk which decreases iron absorption, I will often recommend doing the blood test.”