Battling sickness is child's play . . .
Babies will always be susceptible to coughs and colds, but there's no need to go rushing to the doctor or the medical cabinet at the first hint of a tickly throat
IF PARENTS knew in advance how many illnesses their kids were going to pick up there's a fair chance that they'd flee the scene before starting a family. After a harsh winter when the doctor's surgery has become a second home for many families, it's reasonable to ask: how often are kids supposed to get sick?
Views can be very polarised on this matter with some parents claiming their little angels never get sick while others compare their home to a permanent sick bay.
Doctors certainly believe illnesses come hot and heavy during childhood. "It depends on the age of a child, but it is normal for a child to have up to eight viral illnesses in a year," according to Dr Mel Bates, spokesman for the Irish Council of General Practitioners.
"If you think about it, each infection can take a week or two weeks to clear so it can feel like you have a child with a snotty nose all the time," he says.
Dr Bates has little time for those who give parents a hard time because their kid is sick. "There is usually some domineering figure like a mother-in-law in the background who has raised eight kids who never had a cold saying things like, 'Are you feeding them properly?' or 'Do they need some vitamins?' It is rubbish to say that all they need is a balanced diet."
"Whether a child gets sick or not really has a lot to do with luck," he adds.
Mum-of-two Lisa Wilkinson and her partner Iarla certainly had an impressive run of illnesses this winter with Tuilelaith (6) and Sean (1). "This year alone, we've had the vomiting bug, two bouts of chicken pox and swine flu. From November until the end of February we've only had about two weeks free from sickness. Only just recently all four of us have been able to leave the house together -- as there was always someone sick."
Lisa runs the Elbow Room yoga centre in Dublin and has to balance work with the normal demands of sick kids. "When my two got chicken pox at Christmas, I was worried about Sean because he was so young but it was a lot worse for Tuiletaith who was six. Sean flew it in the end. I remember chicken pox parties when I was younger with parents trying to get it out of the way when kids were younger."
"Tuiletaith then got swine flu which was pretty intense for three days. Her temperature kept going up and up so I was sponging her down. We treated it homeopathically with Belladonna which brought it down."
Even though she's had her share of childhood illnesses recently, Lisa is reluctant to use too much medication. "A child with a temperature is a healthy child because the fever is fighting the virus. When you are looking after your kids you are just going on adrenalin. I have only ever given them three spoonfuls of Calpol and one dose of antibiotics."
There are a whole range of common ailments that Lisa has seen her children succumbing to. "Babies start getting sick when they start socialising. It will start with something like sticky eye and a cold and then they will have their first fever. Because babies are so pure, they have a really strong reaction to viruses and throw out a really high fever."
"Teething is a big one as it can cause a runny nose, diarrhoea or a high temperature. Parents often don't know if it is just teething or something more that is causing the various symptoms," she adds.
Baby digestive systems can also be a big source of worry for parents. "Trapped wind is a big one. You will also have mums who are concerned because their baby hasn't pooed in days but as a baby grows their poo patterns change," says Lisa. "Then there is the happy hour. This is the hour in the day that your baby is just cranky and nothing you do seems to sort it out. It can be colic or wind."
Support is vital for parents who sometimes have to contend with more illnesses in a few months than you'd see in a whole series of Grey's Anatomy. Lisa recommends parent-and-toddler groups for this reason. "Being in a group with other mums really helps, as having access to information makes things a lot easier. Sickness is a part of growing up and it's fully expected that children are going to get sick."
There is also a seasonal aspect to childhood illnesses, according to Prof Ronan O'Sullivan, consultant in emergency medicine at the Crumlin Children's Hospital. "We see seasonal peaks in illnesses in the emergency department right throughout the year. In the winter months from November to March we see a lot of viral and respiratory illnesses. There are increases in cases of bronchiolitis, pneumonia and asthma."
At this time of year, other illnesses are more prevalent. "Spring is the season for diarrhoea and vomiting with the rota virus being the cause of it mainly," said Prof O'Sullivan.
"In the summer months, it is mainly broken bones and falls. In the emergency department, there is an increase in cases on weekends where parents may have difficulty accessing a doctor."
While parents flock to the doctor when their child is sick, GPs caution against too much drug treatment for frequently ill kids. "Viral illnesses require TLC and not antibiotics. A lot of what GPs do is just reassurance. A child should only be given antibiotics when they need them," says Dr Mel Bates.
"Chesty coughs are very common and we see children coming in with a cough that is so bad it sounds like they smoke 40 a day. Everything's fine until someone down the road says you should get that cough seen to and parents come in to us in a panic. Cough bottles don't work. We call it 'good cough' as it serves a very important function as it is keeping the secretions off the chest."
Irish people are not alone in rushing to the medicine chest once a child gets sick. "The Greeks don't think you have done anything for a child unless you have stuck a needle in their bum and, in France, a child has only been treated if they have had a suppository. In Ireland, it is antibiotics -- it's a cultural thing."
But Dr Bates still believes antibiotics have a place in battling childhood illnesses. "As far as I am concerned, tablets are a tool. If your boiler breaks down, you need tools to fix it."
Mother-of-four Lee Ni Chinneide lives in Galway and has four children, Caoimhe (18), Willow (9), Rhiannon (8) and Rowan (1).
"Some winters they could be sick quite often. One of them could be sick once a month. It is all the usual stuff like coughs and colds. Luckily, they have rarely been seriously sick and when they are, they get over it quite quickly."
Lee treats childhood illnesses using homeopathy and is reluctant to use over-the-counter remedies. "I have never had to resort to Nurofen, Calpol or antibiotics. I remember my doctor being utterly amazed I didn't have any Calpol or Nurofen in my house" she says.
"I really feel there is a loss of community and young mums are terrified and are not sure what to do when their child is sick."
As a mum Lee understands the utter fear that goes with some illnesses.
"My son had meningitis at 13 months. We ended up in Temple Street, which was very frightening, but we asked to treat him homeopathically. They were very respectful and he pulled through without any medication," she said.
Lee became interested in homeopathy when Caoimhe was a baby and now runs clinics in both Dublin and Galway. "When my eldest daughter was one, she had viral bronchitis. We just couldn't shake it; nothing worked and she had a constant cough. A friend of ours was into homeopathy and recommended it. We gave her three little pills and three days later to our amazement she started to improve. To this day, she hasn't had a cough."
Dr Mel Bates thinks parents' attitudes to children getting sick must change. "All parents want is for their baby to be better, which is normal. We are all boastful about our children and competitive; that's just human nature."
"But the most important thing is to normalise it -- that children just get sick. Try not to give in to the pressure of competitive parents who say their kids never get sick. It's normal."