Written by Jesse Hackell MD
In the fall of 1957, the Asian influenza pandemic was spreading across the country. My younger sister had just been diagnosed with that flu, and my grandmother had arrived shortly thereafter to help at our home when my mother entered the hospital to give birth to another sister. In those days, one could count of a solid seven days in the maternity hospital, even for an uncomplicated delivery.
Knowing the extremely contagious nature of the flu (she had lived through the devastating influenza pandemic of 1918), my grandmother set out with every weapon known to modern grandmotherhood to prevent my father and me from getting sick, fearing the consequences for my mother and newborn sister. With isolation, chicken soup and constant scrubbing and disinfecting, my father and I were spared the disease, as were my mother and sister, and, as long as she lived, my grandmother delighted in telling the story of how she confounded the pediatrician who had predicted that we would all very soon be ill.
Flash forward fifty-four years to 2011. What are the risks to siblings today when one member of a family contracts a communicable disease, and how should we respond? I think that the answer depends on many factors, one of which concerns the nature of the particular illness that one person has contracted.
Some viral illnesses are highly contagious, even without direct contact. Certainly chicken pox and measles used to spread through families like wildfires, but immunization has largely reduced the occurrence of these diseases, primarily by greatly reducing the amount of disease in circulation, and, further, by producing immunity in children who might somehow be exposed. The same goes for influenza, the bane of my grandmother; since universal influenza immunization was recommended a few years ago, the burden of disease has been reduced, although not as much as it could be if everyone actually did get their flu shots.
How about other types of infectious, contagious illnesses? The common cold is just that, common, and most people will suffer one or multiple episodes each year. Unfortunately, there is no effective preventive immunization, and it does tend to spread readily; fortunately, it tends, in most people, to be relatively mild and of short duration.
Strep throat is another common contagious illness, especially in children. There certainly are families where multiple members will get strep in close temporal relationship to each other, and these may be the result of spread within the family.
But it is also possible that multiple family members were exposed at school or work, and contracted the illness elsewhere. But strep is harder to spread than some of the illnesses discussed previously, and there are many cases where one family member gets it, and no one else becomes sick. This is one illness where good handwashing, and avoidance of sharing of food, utensils and so on, can be a useful preventive measure.
The same can be said for infectious mononucleosis–“mono,” also known as the “kissing disease,” primarily for its reputation as a common occurrence during adolescence. Yet in most of the families where one child has mono, it is very uncommon for other siblings to also contract it. Thus simply sharing a room, or time at the dinner table, is generally not enough to transmit an illness like mono.
Pneumonia in children is also common, and the vast majority of cases are viral in origin–and they are often caused by the same viruses which cause the common cold. I tend to think of most cases of pneumonia as “a common infection in an uncommon place,” and generally feel that, while another member of a family might catch the same virus, it is far less likely to be caught as pneumonia. Rather, it might cause a head cold, sore throat or ear infection in someone else.
So why does this matter?
Rare is the day which goes by that I am not asked a question like “his brother has strep (or pneumonia of the flu or…), so why can’t you just treat all my kids for it without having to see them?” In response, it is important to point out that every person who gets a fever after being in contact with someone who has strep is far from guaranteed to have strep as the cause of that fever; most illnesses are just not that contagious, and most fevers require individual evaluation regardless of the person’s exposure.
The same thinking goes into my response to the schools who send home notices every time someone in a class is diagnosed with strep, ostensibly warning parents to be on the lookout for strep in their children. About the only thing these notices accomplish is the wasting of paper.
I would far prefer that parents react to each of their children’s illnesses in a vacuum, paying no attention to what the child might have been exposed to (assuming, of course, that the child has been fully immunized, thus pretty effectively–but not 100% completely– ruling out those preventable illnesses as a cause of the fever.)
What to do when your child is ill
When your child is ill, pay more attention to how he or she is acting, how sick he or she appears, and how well the illness is being handled by the child, than to what diseases he or she might have been exposed to. Discussing that information with your pediatrician will enable you to better decide what y our next course of action should be for evaluating the illness in that child.
Dr. Hackell is a founding member of Pomona Pediatrics PC, a division of Children’s and Women’s Physicians of Westchester. He practices in the lower Hudson River Valley just north of New York City.