Common illnesses in babies and their symptoms

In the first few years of life, there are a variety of childhood illnesses which can occur. Thankfully, most common childhood illnesses are non-serious, and will only make your little one feel unwell or uncomfortable for only a short period of time. However there are also childhood illnesses which are considered serious illnesses or potentially life threatening (including severe allergic reaction). You should seek medical advice immediately if your child has any concerning symptoms like severe pain or difficulty breathing. Your doctor can also provide more information when caring for a sick child.

Here are some examples of common childhood illnesses your child may experience as they grow up:

  • Upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs) - symptoms may include a runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, sore throat, coughing, and/or mild fever.
  • Croup - an illness caused by viruses that may cause a swelling of the voice box and airways, leading to a harsh or barking or a “brassy” cough.
  • Gastroenteritis, or “gastro” – may cause vomiting and diarrhoea leading to dehydration
  • Hand, foot and mouth disease – may produce blisters on the skin around the mouth, feet and hands
  • Nappy rash – a rash that can occur from wearing nappies
  • Conjunctivitis – affects the eye area, causing red or pink eye, excessive tears and sometimes a yellow-green discharge

Baby illnesses and the eyes: conjunctivitis

Conjunctivitis, sometimes referred to as “pink eye,” is an eye infection that can affect babies, young children, also older children, and adults. It can cause an inflammation of the lining that covers the whites of the eyes, as well as the inside of the eyelids (or conjunctiva).

The cause of conjunctivitis can either be infectious (caused by a virus or bacteria) or non-infectious (caused by allergies or something getting caught in the eye area from the environment such as dust or sand). Symptoms of conjunctivitis are usually obvious, as one or both eyes can become pink or red, have yellow-green or sticky discharge, and the eyelashes can also become crusty - especially after sleeping.

If the conjunctivitis is caused by an infection it can be very infectious, spreading to others through direct contact. So maintaining good hygiene such as thorough hand washing is very important. Initially, you can help your baby by using a soft moist cloth to wipe away any discharge; you should then see a doctor for management and treatment options.

Skin-related baby issues

As your baby grows, their skin is also still developing, which means skin issues can also occur. One common issue is nappy rash, which is where the skin around the nappy area becomes irritated. Nappy rash is a broad term, and it can occur for several reasons, including irritation from the nappy itself, or infection. Another skin issue is “cradle cap”, which is when the skin produces greasy yellow like scales in areas such as the scalp T-line of the face and ears. Something else your baby can experience is heat rash, which is where small sweat filled blisters appear just underneath the surface layer of the skin. Heat rash usually occurs in warmer months. If your baby is experiencing any skin related issue, speak with your doctor for advice on how to manage.

Dealing with nappy rash

Nappy rash is common and can be caused by a range of things such as irritation from the nappy, or even infection. Thankfully there are some preventative measures that can be used to help avoid nappy rash including:

  • Nappies:
    • Use nappies which are highly absorbent and limit moisture contacting the skin
    • Changing nappies as soon as they are soiled or wet will help keep the skin dry
    • For cloth nappies change often (i.e., approximately every two hours or less if necessary)
    • Avoid using plastic over pants and nappy liners
  • Soaps: try a soap substitute or a dispersible bath oil for bathing
  • Avoid baby wipes: avoid using baby wipes during irritation periods, instead try a soft damp cloth for wiping the area at each change
  • Nappy free time: give your baby some nappy free time to allow the area to air out

There are also medicated products available including creams. To learn more, speak with your doctor or pharmacist to see which product is most suitable for your case. You should also speak with them if the rash looks severe or is not getting better after a few days.

Understanding cradle cap

Cradle cap is another common issue, and whilst it may look concerning, it is usually something which clears on its own within a few weeks. Generally speaking, the symptoms of cradle cap are greasy-looking yellowish scales or skin flakes on the scalp, hairline, ears and/or eyebrows. Cradle cap is usually harmless and not typically itchy for your baby. However, it is best to speak with your doctor to make sure it is in fact cradle cap your baby has. Here are some options that may help manage your baby’s cradle cap:

  • Liquid paraffin or baby oil – try gently massaging the area with liquid paraffin or baby (mineral) oil to help loosen the scales. Avoid olive oil as it may disrupt the skin barrier. Using oils derived from certain food-based sources such as nuts or seeds should be done so with caution, this is due to the low risk of allergies for some children
  • Another option is to try applying a light moisturising cream, then once the scales are a little softer to touch, give your baby a bath and use some baby shampoo. You can then very gently scrub the affected areas with an unused soft bristle toothbrush or comb. Just remember to be gentle so as not to irritate or damage the skin.

While cradle cap will usually clear on its own, there are some signs and to look out for such as redness or weeping. If these occur, it could be a sign of infection and you should see a doctor. You should also see a doctor if the crust is still present after your baby reaches 3 months of age, or if the crust is not improving, or is spreading to other areas of the body.

How to protect your baby from Illnesses

To help protect your baby from illnesses caused by infection, there are a number of preventative measures you can take:

  • Good hygiene – practising good hygiene will help prevent spreading germs that may cause baby illnesses. It includes washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, and regularly cleaning surfaces especially in food preparation areas.
  • Hydration and nutrition – regularly hydrating and feeding your child with safely prepared healthy food is very important for their growth and development
  • Prevent exposure to cigarette smoke
  • Medical checks: regular medical check-ups with your doctor will also help ensure your doctor can pick up on any issues. They will also be able to guide you on necessary vaccinations as per the National Immunisation Program to help protect against some of the more serious baby illnesses.

During common childhood illnesses such as upper-respiratory tract infections (also known as the common cold), your baby may develop pain or fever. If this happens, there are pharmacological options such as paracetamol or ibuprofen that can be used for the short-term relief of these symptoms.