Common child care illnesses: what you need to know

By Sarah Rogers-Anderson

When children start child care, their immune systems are often still developing. They may be more susceptible to common viruses until they build up immunity or get vaccinated. Even then, no one is completely immune to colds and other illnesses!

While getting sick isn’t entirely avoidable, and it is, in fact, a process for your child to slowly build up immunity, there are some simple steps parents and child care centres can take to help stop the spread of illness. Here’s everything you need to know about common child care viruses, how to manage them, how long your child should stay at home when they’re sick and the precautions our centres take to keep your child healthy.

What are some of the most common illnesses in child care?

According to Australia’s national public health information service, these are the most common infections found in child care settings and how long children should stay at home to stop them from spreading.

Colds

The common cold can be caused by a variety of viruses, including rhinovirus, coronavirus, RSV and parainfluenza. Symptoms include a sore throat, coughing, sneezing, a blocked nose and sometimes a low-grade fever. Because these symptoms are similar to those of COVID-19, children should take a COVID test and stay at home until they get a negative result and they’re well enough to return to child care.

Flu (influenza)

The flu causes symptoms including high fever, fatigue, dry cough and muscle aches. Some children may also have stomach pain, nausea and vomiting. Children with these symptoms should take a COVID-19 test and stay at home until they’re well.

COVID-19

COVID-19 symptoms can include sore throat, runny nose, cough, fever, headache, muscle aches and fatigue. Some may also get vomiting and diarrhoea. Your child should take a COVID test and stay at home for seven days after receiving a positive result.

RSV (Respiratory syncytial virus)

RSV generally only causes cold symptoms in older children and adults, but it can lead to bronchiolitis (inflammation in the breathing tubes in the lungs) or pneumonia (lung infection) in children under two. Children can return to child care when their symptoms have resolved.

Diarrhoea and gastro (gastroenteritis)

Diarrhoea is loose or watery stools caused by a virus, bacteria, food poisoning, an allergy or another condition. Gastro is linked to various viruses (including rotavirus, norovirus and adenovirus) and symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and stomach cramps. In both cases, your child shouldn’t attend child care until they haven’t had diarrhoea and/or vomiting for at least 24 hours.

Hand, foot and mouth disease

This viral infection causes a fever and small blisters on the cheeks, in the mouth and on the hands and feet. Your child should stay at home until all the blisters have dried.

Whooping cough (pertussis)

Whooping cough starts with a dry cough that can lead to coughing fits and a distinctive “whooping” sound. Children can return to child care five days after starting antibiotics or 21 days after the start of their cough.

Conjunctivitis

This eye infection causes sore and watery eyes with discharge (pus). Keep your child at home until the discharge has stopped.

Chickenpox (varicella)

Chickenpox causes red, itchy patches on the skin that turn into blisters and may be accompanied by a fever. Children should stay at home until all their blisters are dry approximately five days after the rash first appears.

Measles

Measles start with a fever, sore throat, cough, runny nose and eyes that are sensitive to light. After three to four days, a rash appears. Your child can return to child care four days after the rash first appears if they seem well.

Mumps

Children with mumps have painful swelling under their ears often accompanied by fever and joint pain. They should stay at home for nine days or until the swelling has subsided.

Rubella

Rubella symptoms are similar to those of the common cold with a reddish-pink rash and swollen lymph nodes. Children should stay home for at least four days after the rash first appears or until they’re well again.

How parents can help keep their children healthy

Teach your child to wash hands frequently

Keeping on top of your child’s vaccinations can help you avoid or minimise the severity of many common viruses found in child care settings. There are vaccines to protect children against the flu, COVID-19 (for children aged five and up), whooping cough, chickenpox, measles, mumps, rubella, rotavirus and several other illnesses. Consult the Department of Health’s National Immunisation Program Schedule to find out when your child should be immunised.

You can also teach your child some simple hygiene habits that will help them stay healthy and avoid spreading illness to others. Encourage them to wash their hands regularly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, to use hand sanitiser when necessary and to cough or sneeze into their elbow.

How our centres help prevent the spread of illness

How our centre prevent the spread of illnesses

Managing the risk of exposure and spread of infectious diseases is a priority for our centres. Whilst it may not be possible to prevent the spread of all infections and diseases, minimising the risk is enhanced through a number of initiatives including:

  • Immunisation;
  • Effective hand hygiene;
  • Infection control education;
  • Wearing of personal protective equipment;
  • Exclusion of ill team members and children
  • Regular cleaning of surfaces and environments

Children and educators at our centres are actively encouraged to wash their hands frequently, cough and sneeze into their elbows and practise good personal hygiene. High-touch areas, meal-preparation areas, as well as dining tables and chairs are cleaned after every use. Our educators also remove toys for washing during the day and have a designated container where dirty and mouthed toys are placed.

If your child shows signs of illness when they arrive at their centre or becomes sick during the day, you may be notified that you need to make alternative arrangements or pick up your child from the centre, and keep them home until they are no longer infectious. While we understand that this can be inconvenient, we’re committed to maintaining a healthy environment and reducing the risk of infection for all children.

If a confirmed diagnosis of a notifiable disease occurs in one of our centres or is brought to their attention by a parent or legal guardian, the centre will notify the relevant Public Health Unit for their state. The Public Health can provide valuable advice, support and resources that can help manage outbreaks, as well as next steps for families and staff. Our centres will then notify parents and team members of the case, along with guidelines on exclusion periods and the symptoms of the disease. This notification will be displayed in the foyer, in the children’s rooms, in team members’ areas and also communicated electronically to families.

How to tell if your child is too sick to attend child care

Keep your child home when they are sick

The child care exclusion periods mentioned above should be followed when your child is sick. If your child still doesn’t seem like themselves after the exclusion period, it’s a good idea to keep them at home until their usual levels of wellness and energy return.

Try to ensure they get plenty of rest and offer fluids regularly (water, ice blocks and soup are good choices). You can also administer paracetamol or ibuprofen in recommended doses if they’re in pain or have a high fever. In some cases, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to fight certain infections. If your child is having trouble breathing, this is an emergency. Call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.