Five common childhood viruses

Dr Tim Ross talks about five common childhood viruses and why getting sick can be good for your child’s immune system.

If it seems like your toddler is always sick, you’re not alone. Daycare centres, preschools and social gatherings are hot beds for viruses. They’re generally spread from coughing, sneezing or simply breathing, hence catching them is unavoidable.

The good news? The immune system is designed to catch viruses. At birth, a baby has an undeveloped or immature immune system. In the first few years of life, catching viruses is the best way for your child to build a strong and healthy immunity which ultimately sets them up for life.

Your child may catch some or all of these viruses before they start school:


Roseola is a member of the herpes virus family. Much like cold sores and chicken pox, once roseola is contracted it lays dormant in the body for life. Roseola affects children in the first few years of life, typically between six to 18 months of age. Once your child is exposed, he won’t show symptoms for five to 14 days.

Symptoms: Roseola is defined by four days of fever and a pink rash that is visible on or shortly after day four. The rash is raised or flat and covers most of the body. It can last up to five days.

Treatment: there is no treatment but plenty of fluids and paracetamol to assist a good night’s sleep is recommended.

Cytomegalovirus (CMV) 

Another member of the herpes virus family, cytomegalovirus (CMV) is related to the glandular fever virus and presents as a flu-like illness. It’s more common in adults than children and in most cases, you won’t even know you have it. Unfortunately, it can be dangerous to unborn babies. Ten per cent of unborn babies who are exposed to the virus can have severe, life-long effects.

Symptoms: lethargy, fever, flu-like symptoms.

Treatment: plenty of fluids, paracetamol, rest.

Slapped Cheek

Also known as Fifth Disease from its place on the standard list of rash-causing childhood viruses (measles, rubella etc), slapped cheek is a parvovirus and presents from four to 14 days after exposure. It’s most common in late winter and early spring. Slapped cheek is particularly dangerous to pregnant women and, if exposed, 10% of foetus’ will be adversely affected. 

Symptoms: fever, lethargy, runny nose, headache, rash with bright read cheeks

Treatment: fluids, paracetamol and rest. Stay away from daycare until symptoms subside. 
Toddler in the bed

Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease (HFMD)

Hand, foot and mouth disease (HFMD) is caused by the coxsackie virus. It typically presents three to six days after exposure and can last from seven to ten days. It is more common in the warmer months.  

Symptoms: fever is common in the first 12-24 hours and may be followed by respiratory and abdominal symptoms including inflammation of glands, irritability, aversion to food. Painful lesions or blisters present in the first few days and cover the hands, foot, mouth and nappy area. 

Treatment: lots of fluids and Solugel to ease the discomfort of blisters. Regular and thorough hand-washing is the best way to prevent reinfection. 


Regarded as a nocturnal virus, croup presents as a barking or honking cough. It is simply a flu-like virus with a cough but because children have small airways, the inflammation causes narrowing of the upper trachea, the top of the windpipe, giving the characteristic sound. The first two nights are generally the worst and can result in stridor - an almost-closed airway where the child is having significant trouble breathing. In this instance, go straight to hospital.

Symptoms: barking, seal-like cough, malaise, distress if having trouble breathing. 

Treatment: your GP may prescribe one or two days of prednisone if the symptoms are severe, a medicine that helps open the airways by decreasing the inflammation.
Back to top