5 Airborne Diseases: Causes, Symptoms, Prevention And Treatment

Is your child down with persistent cough? Worried about your child’s rashes? These may be more than simple cases of cold or an allergy. They may be signs of an airborne disease like flu or chickenpox.

By Ashwin Dewan

5 Airborne Diseases: Causes, Symptoms, Prevention And Treatment
Airborne diseases spread by air

“My three-year-old son, Akshay, had a bad bout of chickenpox last month. As tiny and fragile as he is, it was heart-breaking to see him suffer from the severe itchiness of the pox.

He was too young to understand what he was going through. And, all I could do was comfort him and lull him to sleep as much as possible. It was when I talked to an old friend of mine recently, that I came to know how contagious chickenpox really is. With it, came the shocking realisation that this dreadful disease is easily vaccine-preventable. This piece of information blew my mind and I felt so guilty. I still blame myself. My little Akshay had to suffer needlessly. I wish I had known about this disease and the measures to take, earlier. I could have easily protected my baby boy from this awful disease.” – Chitra, mother of little Akshay

Chickenpox, mumps, measles and whooping cough! Diseases that sound alarming, right? And they are, if not prevented or treated right. In fact, these airborne diseases can be easily contracted by your child and be extremely distressing for her.

However, worry not, as this article provides a close look into a few of these diseases, their causes, symptoms, complications, prevention, treatment and more.

So, what exactly are airborne diseases?

As the name implies, an airborne disease is spread through tiny pathogens in the air when an infected person sneezes or coughs. These pathogens can be viruses, bacteria or other microorganisms that cause the diseases.

Your child can get the infectionwhen he breathes in the infected air or comes into contact with a surface that contains these pathogens. Once the pathogens enter his body, they multiply and spread aggressively until he falls sick.

The extent of the spread of airborne diseases depends primarily on three factors:

  1. The number of pathogens present in the air
  2. The strength of the pathogen that has infected your child
  3. Your child’s resistance to the pathogen

As a parent, it can be challenging when it comes to protecting your child from these airborne diseases that are easily transmitted via air. In fact, such transmission makes it that much more difficult to control and prevent the diseases.

However, being equipped with a thorough understanding of these airborne diseases and knowing how to prevent them can help you protect your child from them.

So, let’s go ahead and learn about five common airborne diseases:

1. Flu

What are the causes?

The common flu, also known as influenza, is caused by the influenza virus. This virus attacks the respiratory system – the nose, throat and lungs. When a person infected with this virus coughs or sneezes into the air, and your child breathes the infected air in or touches a surface or object that contains the germs, she contracts influenza.

What are the symptoms?

Some common symptoms of flu include fever, muscle ache, headache, chills, dry and persistent cough, sore throat, fatigue and nasal congestion. These symptoms often go away within five days. However, affected children may still suffer from a cough and experience weakness even after the symptoms recede.

Are there any complications?

In most cases, the flu takes its course and resolves on its own with proper care. However, if your child does not receive medical care at the right time, influenza can cause complications that can range from bronchitis and severe ear infections to heart problems.

Can one prevent it?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), USA, an annual flu vaccine for children six months and older is recommended. Apart from this, a few precautionary measures can be followed that include:

  • Avoiding touching used tissues
  • Not sharing spoons, straws or cups with infected persons
  • Avoiding contact with or being near infected persons
  • Washing hands with soap regularly

How to treat it?

First and foremost, follow your doctor’s advice and give your child the prescribed medication. Also, let your child –

  • Stay hydrated by drinking enough water and fluids like juice and soup, at regular intervals
  • Get plenty of rest
  • Wear warm clothes (Note: Your child might feel cold one minute and hot the next. Keep appropriate clothes handy.)

2. Chickenpox

What are the causes?

This airborne disease manifests in the form of itchy, red blisters all over the body. Highly contagious, chickenpox is caused by the varicella virus and mainly affects children. It transmits easily from one infected child to another. It is not a serious airborne disease, but complications can arise in some cases.

What are the symptoms?

Common symptoms of chickenpox include characteristic rashes across your child’s body, fever, muscle ache, loss of appetite and nausea. Most children get chickenpox only once in their lifetime. However, if the virus gets reactivated at a later stage, it gives rise to shingles, which is a painful skin condition in old people.

Are there any complications?

In some severe cases of chickenpox, the skin around the blisters becomes painful and breathing difficulties can arise causing much discomfort to children. Neurological complications are rare, but possible.

Can one prevent it?

Yes, there is a vaccine called varicella, which can prevent the disease from infecting your child or reduce its severity enormously. Also, avoid your child being in contact with people who are infected with the pox, as it is highly contagious.

How to treat it?

It is important to note that there is no cure for chickenpox. Follow your doctor’s advice. He may prescribe medication or suggest ways to soothe the itchiness and manage the discomfort. He may also suggest measures to provide relief from other symptoms. Further, your child may drink plenty of fluids (preferably water) and get plenty of rest. The pox goes away within a week or two, without treatment.

3. Measles

What are the causes?

Measles is another highly contagious disease caused by the virus, Rubeola. It is spread through coughing, sneezing and close contact with a child who has measles.

What are the symptoms?

Common symptoms of measles include fever, cough, runny nose, sneezing, body ache, red eyes, discharge from the eyes, watery eyes and loss of appetite.

Are there any complications?

In severe cases of measles, there can be diarrhoea, vomiting, eye infection, difficulty in breathing and ear infection. Serious neurological complications can occur but are rare.

Can one prevent it?

Yes, measles, once a common childhood disease, can now be easily prevented with the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine. Children who have not been vaccinated are at a high risk of getting measles.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), during the period, 2000 to 2017, the measles vaccination prevented an estimated 21.1 million deaths making it one of the ‘best buys’ in public health.

How to treat it?

Measles usually goes away on its own after taking its course. However, the doctor may recommend rest and fluid intake at regular intervals to prevent dehydration. Further, let your child –

  • Stay in a dark or dimly lit room as measles tends to worsen with an increase in the intensity of light. Sometimes, corneal scarring from measles can lead to blindness in children.
  • Take a break from school and avoid close contact with others, lest he passes it on to them
  • Take vitamin A supplements (suggested by many doctors)

4. Whooping cough

What are the causes?

A contagious and dreadful airborne disease, whooping cough is also referred to as pertussis as it is caused by the bacteria Bordetella Pertussis. It is a respiratory tract infection that causes severe coughing spells, with a ‘whooping sound’ to them as the affected child tries to breathe in air.

What are the symptoms?

The initial symptoms of whooping cough are like those of the common cold – runny nose, sneezing, mild cough and low-grade fever. However, after a week or two, the mild cough becomes more severe. In such cases, sometimes the child’s face can turn red briefly due to prolonged coughing.

Are there any complications?

Yes, prolonged bouts of coughing may cause a child to vomit, struggle to breathe and inhale air with a whooping sound. Some extreme side effects of continuous coughing may include bruised ribs and abdominal hernia. Pneumonia is a rare complication. This infection affects all age groups but can have serious complications for babies younger than six months.

Can one prevent it?

Yes, it is preventable if DTaP, a childhood vaccine, is administered to your child.

How to treat it?

Cough syrup does not work in this case. If the condition is diagnosed early, antibiotics help treat cough and prevent the infection from spreading. Further, let your child –

  • Drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration
  • Get plenty of rest
  • Use a vaporiser (under adult supervision) to soothe irritated lungs and breathing passages
  • Stay away from smoke and sprays in the house (strong odours may irritate the airways)

5. Mumps

What are the causes?

A condition in which a virus causes heavy swelling in the salivary glands (which are below the ears) is referred to as mumps. These glands are responsible for producing saliva in the human body. The virus passes from one infected child to another through saliva, nasal secretions and close contact.

What are the symptoms?

Common symptoms of mumps include body ache, pain while chewing food or swallowing, fatigue, swelling below the ears, headache, loss of appetite and fever.

Are there any complications?

Complications arising due to mumps are not common. However, in some rare cases, hearing loss may occur. Orchitis (inflammation of the testicles) and pancreatitis (inflammation in the pancreas) are rare. But consult a doctor immediately, if a male child infected with mumps complains of pain in the testicles. Also, seek medical help if your child complains of severe abdominal pain and loses sensorium (inability to think and perceive clearly).

Can one prevent it?

Vaccination is the best way to prevent mumps in children. Most infants and babies receive the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine. This helps protect them from mumps later.

How to treat it?

Let your child get plenty of rest. Consult your doctor for pain relievers to ease symptoms.

You cannot prevent airborne diseases completely. However, certain simple measures like ensuring good ventilation to circulate the air, reducing contact with people who are sick, staying home when sick, following proper sanitary and hygienic practices, and avoiding crowded public areas, can help prevent their spread to a large extent.

Further, vaccinations protect your child from these dreadful diseases. For any queries you might have on vaccinations, discuss with your doctor about what to give your child. Ample rest and intake of lots of fluids are the best ways to treat less-serious cases of airborne diseases. Let your child stay safe and take care!

With inputs from Dr Parin N Parmar, Paediatric Allergology Consultant, Gujarat

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