The UK’s widespread childhood immunisation programme means more babies, children and young people are protected against disease than ever before.
Many once-common childhood diseases have been almost completely eradicated, e.g. polio and tuberculosis (TB), along with the pain, misery and life-changing disabilities that went with them.
Of course, this does not mean children are no longer at risk of catching diseases, including those where a vaccine does exist, e.g. measles and whooping cough, but immunisation does mean that their immune system is more capable of fighting the disease.
Incubation – the time between your child coming into contact with the source of the infection and their symptoms showing – varies from disease to disease. This means it can be difficult to know when your child becomes infectious so you can keep them home from nursery/school and away from pregnant women. Contact your health visitor or your child’s nursery/school if in doubt.
Try not to worry too much. Remember, a child’s immune system is very powerful, and the majority of children will recover from their illness quickly and without developing complications.
Common infectious diseases
Infectious diseases are those which can be spread – directly or indirectly – from one person to another by bacteria, viruses, parasites of fungi.
Some diseases are extremely infectious, e.g. measles can be passed between individuals without face-to-face contact.
Common infectious childhood diseases include:
Non-infectious childhood diseases are less common, and are more likely to be caused by lifestyle factors, environmental toxins or gene mutations.
Some non-infectious diseases are short-lived and can be easily treated, e.g. scurvy, anaemia. Others, like leukaemia, are more serious; however, most children will be fully cured after treatment.
Other childhood diseases, e.g. Type 1 diabetes and sickle cell anaemia, are life-long conditions that can be treated but not cured.
Less common childhood diseases
Unfortunately, there are many more childhood diseases than those which are routinely vaccinated against, and some can rapidly endanger a child’s life, e.g. meningitis.
Children who are in contact with people who travel abroad regularly, or who travel abroad themselves, are more at risk of contracting rare diseases. Not all are infectious, e.g. malaria cannot be passed between individuals.
Fit for Travel lists the recommended immunisations and health risks to travellers for countries across the world. Some recommended jabs not included in a child’s immunisation schedule are free on the NHS, e.g. typhoid, Hepatitis A and cholera.
The World Health Organisation produces factsheets on all infectious diseases, including those which are less common in the UK.
Antibiotics and antimicrobial resistance
Antibiotics are powerful medicines used to treat bacterial infections by killing or slowing the growth of the bacteria. They cannot fight viruses so are useless in treating viral infections.
The overuse of antibiotics is leading to an increasing number of bacterial infections becoming resistant to antibacterial medications – this is known as antibacterial resistance. Without effective antibiotics many common bacterial infections will become increasingly dangerous.
Antibiotics should only be taken when absolutely necessary; when they are prescribed, make sure your child finishes the full course.
When to seek medical help
Most childhood illnesses run their course without undue concern. Occasionally, however, you might sense something is wrong.
Children can become seriously ill very quickly so it is crucial to spot the warning signs that their condition is deteriorating and get medical help.
When should I worry? explains when a child’s symptoms may indicate something more serious.
Above all, follow your instincts. You know your child better than anyone. If you are concerned your child’s symptoms are getting worse, seek medical help immediately.