Sick all the time?

Does it seem like your child is sick all the time? You’re probably right. Should you be worried?

It’s the end of the winter when the average child will have had 8 different illnesses. A new illness every two weeks is common for kids under age five. If you are normal, you’ve worried that your child has an immune system problem or even cancer. And there are a few other things you could worry about: ‘periodic fever syndromes’ and autoimmune diseases can also manifest as frequent fevers and fatigue.

Sick Math

The average viral infection is symptomatic for 8 days (and up to 2 weeks). If your high-achieving child has 12 infections in a year, that’s 96-168 days of illness, so if it feels like they are sick most of the time, you’re right!

Pediatricians worry too. We distinguish normal kid sickness from underlying disease in a few ways. First, we know kids start getting ill after 6 months of age. Babies are born with protective immune factors that cross the placenta from their mother. This army of immune fighters starts to break down around 4 months and reaches the lowest point at 6 months. At that point, babies build their own immune system. Our bodies respond to germs by making cells that kill the germ and then our body actually remembers that germ so it can fight it off in the future. That’s why a young child might be sick for 7 days from a common cold that you fight off in a day. You’ve seen that germ’s cousin when you were a kid.

It’s not unusual to see a child get sick frequently from 6 months through about 4 years old while they are building their immunity. But they should recover from each illness on their own and rarely need antibiotics. So pediatricians know to look for a pattern of illness. If a child has pneumonia or has infection in unusual places like deep skin abscesses, that would be cause to worry. And most importantly, kids with immune problems or other diseases don’t gain weight.

The other thing we look for are symptoms associated with a fever. Any symptoms at all will suffice. We look for a reason to have a fever. Vomiting, diarrhea, sore throat, cough or congestion should appear when a child is ill. Fevers or fatigue that don’t appear to have any cause are concerning. A lack of symptoms means a child could have infection in their blood, urine, or other hiding place and we need to look for a cause by doing lab tests.

It's not a tumor

The early warning signs of childhood cancer are completely different from adult’s symptoms of cancer. So forget what you think you know. Childhood cancer looks like this:

  • Continued, unexplained weight loss
  • Headaches with vomiting in the morning
  • Persistent pain in one limb
  • Recurrent fevers without any other signs of infection (no runny nose, cough, vomiting, abdominal pain, etc.)
  • Sudden appearance of bruises in weird places (center of cheeks, butt)
  • Prolonged tiredness that doesn’t really come and go

Kids who get sick frequently are unlucky. Some kids just naturally fight off germs better than others. But every illness helps build their immune system, and there is new scientific evidence that suggests exposure to germs early in life may protect against allergy and immune disease.

TODAY.com Parenting Team Contributor

Author: Wendy Hunter, MD

Associate Clinical Professor of Pediatrics, UC San Diego and pediatrician at Rady Children's Hospital, Department of Emergency Medicine.

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