Most viral infections in summer months are caused by enteroviruses. We studied illnesses in about 400 kids aged 4-18 years seen in private pediatric practice and were surprised by what we found.
Our impression was that summer colds lasted for a shorter time span than winter colds. What we found was that the median duration of illness was about 8 days. Among the various syndromes, the most common was stomatitis (viral blisters in the throat), accounting for 58% of all cases seen. A flulike illness with fever, myalgias, and malaise was second most common (28% of cases), followed by hand/foot/mouth syndrome (8%), pleurodynia (3%), fever with viral rash (3%), and aseptic meningitis (1%). Most of the cases occurred among children 4-12 years old.
The most prevalent symptoms were fever, headache, sore throat, tiredness, muscle aches, and crankiness. Fever was present in about 85% of cases of children with stomatitis, in 95% of cases with myalgias and malaise, but in only 50% of cases of hand/foot/mouth. Headache was very common as well, occurring in about 40% of children with stomatitis, 70% of children with myalgias and malaise, and in 30% of children with hand/foot/mouth.
Illness within a household was quite common. About 50% of the children who came for care had a sibling or parent ill with a summer cold. However, while the symptoms of the family members often were the same as the child who presented for care, that was not always the case. As anticipated, most illness within a household occurred within a 2-week time span. Hand/foot/mouth was most easily recognized by parents to have spread among their children. When a parent became ill, it was almost always the mother because she was almost always the primary parent caretaker.
Summer colds took a toll on families in terms of loss of work by parents. Most of the children were ill enough to stay out of day care or school for about 2-4 days. Virtually all the children with hand/foot/mouth and stomatitis with classic viral blister lesions had a single visit to the pediatric practice, and very limited or no tests done or medications prescribed other than acetaminophen or ibuprofen. But for the children with higher fevers without hand/foot/mouth or stomatitis, the costs of care escalated as tests were much more often performed (CBC, chest x-ray), and medications prescribed (antibiotics for uncertain diagnosis in the context of high fever), and occasional referrals made to the emergency department for further work-up (100% of cases of aseptic meningitis and 50% of cases of pleurodynia).
Overall, summer colds are not so insignificant as presumed at first glance. What interests me now is why summer colds so infrequently are followed by an acute otitis media or sinusitis, whereas winter colds caused by respiratory syncytial virus, influenza, and rhinoviruses are followed by an acute otitis media in about one-third of cases. A new study is underway!
Dr. Pichichero, a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases, is director of the Research Institute, Rochester (N.Y.) General Hospital. He is also a pediatrician at Legacy Pediatrics in Rochester. He has no disclosures.