The (Very Few) Upsides to Childhood Illnesses

CNN/ Newswire | 10/19/2015, 10:02 a.m.
It's that time of year when nobody, especially children, seems to stay healthy.
A new trend among some parents to avoid the chickenpox vaccine for their kids is to buy mail-order lollipops already sucked on by sick kids. They hope their child will get chickenpox and then develop a natural immunity. Pictured: child with chickenpox

Ear infections

Day care can be a breeding ground for ear infections. Research suggests the onslaught of ear infections hits children when they are in a large group setting for the first time, whether it is in day care or later, when they go to kindergarten. Experts have argued it is better for children to get these infections over with early, before they are further along in school and need to be present to learn to read or take on other important subjects.

"The vast majority of kids get some ear infections, some get multiple infections ... but you want to reduce the risk," because they can cause temporary hearing problems, Halsey said. Bacteria, such as pneumococcus, cause most ear infections, so experts recommend the pneumococcal vaccine as well as the flu vaccine. (The flu virus can spread into the ear.) But if a child gets an ear infection, parents and pediatricians should monitor them rather than rush to treat with antibiotics. Many infections can clear up on their own, and antibiotics can have side effects, such as disrupting the good bacteria of the gut, Halsey said.

Although it is better to prevent ear infections in the first place, having one may help prevent pneumonia down the road. The pneumococcal vaccine protects against 13 types of pneumococcus, but there are 80 others out there. If the infection is caused by one of those, it could help the child develop additional immunity and possibly protect them against pneumonia, said Dr. Margaret K. Hostetter, professor and chair of pediatrics at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.

Fifth disease

Fifth disease usually causes no more harm than a fever and mild rash in children and adults. About 20% of people who get infected with parvovirus B19, the virus responsible for fifth disease, do not even develop symptoms. However if there is fallout from infection, it tends to be more serious in adults.

Fifth disease gets its name because it is one of five childhood viral infections associated with rash. Whereas children are more likely to develop a rash on their faces and bodies, adults can develop more serious, flu-like symptoms and women are especially at risk of having joint pain and swelling. Although the joint problems typically go away in less than a month, they become chronic in about 10% of adults.

Fortunately, people infected with fifth disease develop immunity that is usually lifelong.

Chickenpox: Get the vaccine instead

There is a misconception that it's good to expose children to chickenpox, such as by sending them to chickenpox parties, to keep them from getting sick as adults.

"That made sense before we had a vaccine ... but it is so much better to induce that immunity (with a vaccine) without going through the risk of infection and complications of the disease, " Halsey said. "That's the magic of vaccines."

Possible complications of chickenpox infection in children include skin infections, pneumonia and encephalitis, which is inflammation of the brain that can cause fatigue, weakness and even paralysis.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend the chickenpox vaccine for children younger than 12 months, so parents should do everything they can to avoid exposing babies to the virus, Halsey said. Babies who get infected have a higher risk of developing painful shingles during childhood.

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