Illnesses and general health issues can affect anyone at any time, yet children seem to be particularly susceptible to illness. Why is this? Children are by nature inquisitive and they will try to touch, bite and lick almost anything that crosses their path. This curiosity leaves children vulnerable to the spread of harmful germs and bacteria, and when coupled with an undeveloped immune system can result in children easily contracting everyday or common illnesses.
While some illnesses are quite common and will pass after a few days, others can be serious with specific medical treatment and medication being required. There are a number of childhood illnesses and common health issues that frequently affect children in Singapore, and we will now look at what these illnesses are, what symptoms parents should look out for and how these conditions can be treated.
The common cold
A cold is the general term given to a viral infection of the nose, mouth and throat. Colds are generally quite harmless although prolonged or frequent colds in young children can lead to more serious illnesses. These infections are called the common cold because everyone suffers from a cold at some point, including children and young infants. In their first year, infants may suffer from multiple colds as their immune system has only begun to develop.
Colds are common among children in Singapore, despite the tropical climate. Most homes and buildings are air-conditioned and moving children from warm to cool temperatures can risk the onset of colds, however, most colds are passed among children in creches, kindergartens and schools through coughing or sneezing.
Typical symptoms of a cold in a child are lethargy, runny nose, headache, cough, fever and loss of appetite. Children under the age of four are typically unable to blow their nose and this can cause discomfort for the child when feeding and sleeping. The parents can help in this regard by ensuring the nose is kept clear of mucus and by reducing irritation around the nostrils.
Most colds will pass in seven to ten days and medication is not usually required. In some cases, very small doses of children's paracetamol can help, although a doctor should be consulted before use. Plenty of rest and regular feeds or meals will help the child remain hydrated and give them the energy required to fight the illness.
Hand, foot and mouth disease (HFMD)
The hand, foot and mouth disease is a common childhood illness that is quite prevalent in Singapore and throughout Southeast Asia. HFMD is always prevalent in the region and it has a natural cycle in which there are peak years. Unfortunately for residents of Singapore, 2012 is a peak year and there has been a large increase in the number of incidents of HFMD this year.
HFMD is a mild disease but also highly contagious, particularly among young children. HFMD is caused by a group of enteroviruses which spread rapidly in tropical climates, and is passed from person to person through direct contact of saliva or mucus from the nose.
The symptoms of HFMD can develop quite quickly after exposure and they include sore throat, fever, a runny nose and loss of appetite. A rash will appear on the hands and soles of feet, while ulcers and blisters will develop in the mouth. These blisters and ulcers will cause discomfort for the child when eating or drinking, and dehydration is a side effect of HFMD that parents need to be wary of.
If a child exhibits symptoms of HFMD medical attention should be sought immediately, although there is no course of medication required and the disease will usually pass after 10 days or so. Most doctors will prescribe rest and hydration as the best way to treat the disease. During the period of illness, the child must remain at home and out of contact with other children. Parents should use rubber gloves when in close contact with the child and wash hands regularly to prevent the disease spreading to themselves or other members of the family. Toys and common play areas should also be thoroughly disinfected and cleaned.
Chickenpox is a viral illness which is highly infectious. It is an airborne virus that predominantly spreads from person to person by respiratory droplets. The virus usually takes approximately 10 days to materialise, and typical symptoms include fever and a collection of red spots on the face and body. These spots will manifest into blisters which burst before drying up and eventually healing.
Most cases of chickenpox in children are mild and it is the red spots and blisters which cause the most discomfort. These spots will usually become very itchy and it can be difficult preventing young children from scratching them. A soothing cream such as calamine lotion can be applied to relieve the itchiness, while taking daily baths in cool water is also recommended. Gloves may also be worn by children when sleeping to prevent scratching. Prolonged scratching of blisters and spots can leave permanent scars and it is important to reduce scratching as much as possible.
Depending on the age of the child and the severity of the illness, a doctor may prescribe a course of antiviral medication as treatment. Although rare, some complications may also occur such as skin infections due to the sores becoming tender, and dehydration. Chickenpox is vaccine preventable, however, this vaccine is not compulsory in Singapore and it is one of the reasons why this disease is prevalent among children. Parents are advised to consider giving their child the chickenpox vaccination when aged between 12 and 18 months.
Myopia, or shortsightedness, is a common health issue among children in Singapore and over half develop the condition by the time they reach 12 years of age. For children in the age bracket of 7 to 9 years, Singapore has the highest prevalence rate in the world and 34 percent of children in this age group wear glasses. The condition of Myopia is common across Asia, however, Singapore ranks considerably higher than countries such as Taiwan and Hong Kong.
While some incidents of Myopia may be genetic, there are a number of environmental factors that can also cause the development of Myopia in children. These include excessive close work such as reading and studying, lack of outdoor activity, poor eye care, unhealthy diet and poor illumination. In the case of Singapore, it appears to be a combination of both genetic and environmental factors that result in the high prevalence of Myopia.
Asian parents can be very demanding when it comes to their child's education and this is a common issue in Singapore. While all parents wish to see their children excel at school, it shouldn't be to the detriment of the child's health and wellbeing. The Singapore Health Promotion Board has expressed concern at the high rate of Myopia among children and it has called on parents to be proactive in helping their children prevent or combat the condition.
There are a number of ways a parent can help prevent or slow down the development of Myopia. By giving the child good eye habits from an early age, parents can ensure their children's eyes develop properly. Studying and reading in an illuminated area, watching less television, spending less time playing computer games and increased outdoor activity can all help combat the effects of Myopia. Good nutrition, regular exercise and sufficient rest can also help keep children's eyes healthy.
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