Learn more about the most common illnesses encountered in a child care environment

Children explore their world in order to learn, and they use sensory information to help them navigate their journey. They’re also still in the process of learning important hygiene tips, such as hand-washing and covering their mouths and noses when coughing or sneezing. Consequently, children tend to get sick on a regular basis and accidentally spread germs often.

In close quarters such as a child care program, spreading germs can result in sickness several times a year. Learn about the symptoms of common child care illnesses so that you can understand what the children in your care are going through, make an informed decision about when they need to stay home, and prevent the spread of viruses in your child care program.

In good health

The good news is that germs do serve a purpose in early childhood – they help with the development of a child’s immune system. The bad news is that it’s difficult to tell when a child is contagious, and it’s worrisome when other children in your care may suffer. A combination of good hygiene, effective cleaning and sanitizing procedures, and a well-enforced illness policy can help you keep outbreaks to a minimum.

Here are the three most common illnesses to children in a group setting.

Common cold

Children have approximately six to 10 colds each year, and their symptoms tend to last longer than they do in adults. Symptoms will generally improve within a week. It’s not necessary to exclude children from child care over a simple cold. Coughing and runny noses are common occurrences in a child care environment.

Ear infection

Inner ear infections are common for children between 4 months and 5 years old. Ear infections are caused by viruses or bacteria that fill the inner ear with fluid, causing painful pressure. Ear infections are not contagious; however, some children do experience a fever as a symptom and should stay at home until they are fever-free.

Stomach virus

The stomach flu is an unpleasant experience and is the second most common childhood illness. The most important factor to remember when caring for a child with the stomach flu is that dehydration is a real threat.

Most providers will exclude a child with a stomach virus until they are free of symptoms; not only are they contagious but they are also unlikely to be able to participate in normal activities and may require more care than a provider can give with other children present.

If a child attending your program seems sick, evaluate their symptoms to determine if they’re well enough to finish out the day. You may want to call the parent and ask them to pick up their child if you notice signs of:

  • Severe illness including fever, difficulty breathing, inconsolable crying, or lethargy
  • Diarrhea or stools with blood or mucus
  • Vomiting more than twice in 24 hours
  • Mouth sores or excessive drooling
  • Rash or a change of behavior

Assure them that the child can return once symptoms lessen or if they have a doctor’s note stating that the illness isn’t contagious. A written illness policy can help clear up confusion about when to keep a sick child home.

It can be difficult to watch one of the children in your care experiencing discomfort. Understanding common childhood ailments, the associated symptoms, and the expected life cycle of the illness can help relieve some of the anxiety around spreading illness or about the overall well-being of the sick child. The CDC provides information to help you understand how to prevent, recognize, and handle childhood illnesses that could affect the children in your care. The Virginia Infant & Toddler Specialist Network helps improve the quality of care for infants and toddlers through extensive resources, services, and education for caregivers. Learn more about how we can help you improve the standard of care.