Common childhood illnesses in adults

Posted on 19 December 2016

Young children, with immune systems that are still developing, are more susceptible to viral infections like chickenpox, mumps and measles. But Pathcare virologist, Inéz Rossouw, says adults with weakened immune systems are also vulnerable and at greater risk of complications.

There is a common misconception that organisms that cause common childhood illnesses target children specifically. But Pathcare virologist, Inéz Rossouw, says these diseases are mostly seen in children because kids are exposed at an early age when their immune systems are not yet fully developed.

‘If a person was protected from all exposure and only came into contact with the infection as an adult, they could still fall ill,’ says Inéz. ‘And due to their more developed immune systems adults can actually suffer more. A child’s immune system is still immature and not able to muster a strong response, but in the adult we might may see a far stronger reaction.’

One example is hepatitis A, which can occur without symptoms in a child, but may result in a severe manifestation in an adult.

Adults who become ill

Adults who experience the varicella-zoster virus (chickenpox) as children can find the disease goes latent, only to reactivate at a later stage. Under certain conditions, the illness may reactivate as zoster (shingles).

‘It is the same virus causing both diseases, but it manifests differently because chickenpox is the primary infection whereas shingles is the reactivated form,’ says Rossouw.

Amanda Killick had chickenpox as a child and then twice again as an adult. Her most recent episode started with flu-like symptoms a week before the small, itchy, red blister-like spots appeared all over her body. She struggled with headaches, fever and extreme fatigue. Besides having to stay indoors to avoid exposing others to the virus, she also had to use a strong, steroid-based antihistamine cream on her skin. ‘You scar really badly as an adult at the site of each lesion,’ she says. ‘After three months I still had scabs that were healing slowly.’

Chickenpox is a virus, so antibiotics could not be prescribed. Amanda’s GP prescribed symptomatic treatment, plenty of water and a weekly vitamin B injection to boost her immune system.

Amanda’s father has experienced chickenpox twice as a pensioner, in the form of shingles, even though he did not have chickenpox as a child. Shingles poses greater dangers and is more complicated to treat. Other complications of the chickenpox virus include:

  • Skin infections
  • Pneumonia
  • Encephalitis (swelling in the brain)
  • Joint inflammation

Risks in pregnancy

Jessica White was 13 weeks pregnant when her eldest daughter was diagnosed with rubella (German measles) at age 2. German measles usually causes a mild disease in children or adults, but can cause damage to the developing foetus or result in a stillbirth, especially if the mother is exposed to rubella for the first time during the first 16 weeks of the pregnancy.

‘Pregnant women newly exposed to certain infectious agents do not have antibodies to help protect the foetus and it may then cross the placenta and infect the baby as well. Certain organisms may cause severe damage to the developing foetus,’ cautions Rossouw.

Jessica had been immunised against rubella as a child, but there was still a risk that her immunity had worn off. Her obstetrician had to send her for blood tests to check her immunity and ensure her baby was not at risk of congenital rubella syndrome. Possible complications for an unborn child could include sensory and intellectual disability, congenital heart disease and autism. Fortunately, the pathology results showed her immunity to be good. Jessica was relieved and says the positive outcome was a result of the rubella immunisation she received in Primary school.

Preventative care for adults with children or grandchildren in school:

  • Speak to your GP about vaccinations.
  • All family members should sneeze and cough into tissues and discard immediately.
  • All family members should wash hands frequently when ill.
  • Family members should not share utensils or face cloths.
  • Stay at home or keep children at home when ill.
  • Avoid contact with other ill children or adults.


Published in Pregnancy

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