Never Ignore These Children's Health Symptoms

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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  • If you have kids in the house, you’re probably used to their scrapes, runny noses, and stomachaches. Luckily, a hug, simple care at home, and time will take care of many children’s ailments. But some symptoms are signs of a more serious problem, and it’s important to know the difference. Some children’s health symptoms merit a call to the doctor as soon as possible. Early treatment can make all the difference with fast-developing infections or injuries in children.

  • 1
    Breathing Problems
    Child struggling to breathe

    It’s common for kids to feel out of breath after they’ve been exerting themselves. Healthy children recover very quickly. But if your child is having trouble breathing, it could be a sign of something more serious, such as an asthma attack, respiratory infection, or even an allergic reaction. Call your doctor right away for the following signs of breathing problems in children: wheezing, pulling hard to get a breath, and coughing hard. Seek emergency medical care (call 911) if your child’s lips and tongue are swollen and turning blue, or your child can’t breathe.

  • 2
    mother checking child's temperature

    Fever is one way your body fights infection. Most fevers aren’t serious and don’t require treatment unless your child is uncomfortable. However, call your doctor right away for fever in babies and children in these situations: Fever of 100.4°F (38.0°C) or higher in a child 3 months of age and younger. Infections can spread rapidly in very young children; fever persistently higher than 104°F (40°C) in a child older than 3 months; or fever in children with such symptoms as severe headache, vomiting, stiff neck, rash, problems swallowing, drowsiness, low energy, or pain. Go to an urgent care clinic or the emergency room (ER) if you can’t get a doctor’s appointment.

  • 3
    Eczema skin on neck

    Like fever, rash has a wide range of causes—from irritating body lotion, to a food allergy, to a bacterial infection. Many rashes on babies and older children go away by themselves or with conservative treatment, but these rashes in children require emergency treatment: Red or purple dots or blotches all over the body that do not turn white when you press them. These are called purpura. Purpura can indicate a blood infection (sepsis) or meningitis, another dangerous bacterial infection. These are both life-threatening conditions. Also look out for hives (raised welts). Swollen lips or difficulty breathing are signs of a life-threatening allergic reaction.

  • 4
    Serious Wounds
    Nurse applying bandage to leg

    Your child needs to see a doctor for a cut or wound that won’t stop bleeding after a half-hour, if it’s very wide or deep, or if it appears infected. Animal bites that break the skin need professional medical attention as well. Infection from a skin wound can spread to the rest of the body through the blood, which is a life-threatening condition. Signs of infection include: increasing redness around the wound (sometimes in a streak pattern); fever; increasing tenderness or pain; and pus draining from the wound.

  • 5
    Unusual Headache
    Boy with hands on head

    An occasional headache in children and teens is common. They often aren’t serious and go away with over-the-counter medicine and rest. Seek medical care when your child has: a very intense, unbearable headache—to the point your child can’t sleep, eat, or even relax in bed or watch TV; neurological symptoms, such as difficulty walking, vision changes, slurred speech, tingling sensations, or drowsiness; or chronic or persistent headaches, which could be migraine headaches.

  • 6
    Severe Stomachache
    child under covers

    Food poisoning, stress, and constipation are causes of an aching belly that are not usually serious, and go away with over-the-counter treatments and rest. But if your child’s belly ache is sudden, hurts around the belly button or lower-right side of the belly, appendicitis is a possibility. Other appendicitis symptoms include fever, nausea and vomiting. Appendicitis often requires emergency surgery. See a doctor right away for severe stomach pain in a child.

  • 7
    No Urine or Tears
    Close up of baby with pink pacifier

    If your child cries hard and has no tears, or hasn’t urinated in the last several hours, go to an urgent care center or ER. These are signs of serious dehydration. Dehydration in children can happen with prolonged vomiting or diarrhea. Severe dehydration is life threatening and requires immediate treatment with intravenous fluids.

  • 8
    Stiff Neck
    Serious Child

    Your child may wake up with a stiff neck from sleeping in an awkward position. But stiff neck in children (or adults) with fever, headache, skin rash, or light sensitivity may be a sign of meningitis, a type of brain swelling caused by infection. Meningitis is life threatening and requires immediate treatment.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Jan 2
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

  1. Appendicitis. KidsHealth from Nemours.

  2. Dehydration. Mayo Clinic.

  3. Fever in Infants and Children., American Academy of Family Physicians.

  4. First Aid: Stiff Neck. KidsHealth from Nemours.

  5. Headache. KidsHealth from Nemours.

  6. Learn More About Pediatric Headache. Cleveland Clinic.

  7. When to Call the Pediatrician: Fever., American Academy of Pediatricians.

  8. Cuts and Puncture Wounds. MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.

  9. Respiratory Distress in Children. Boston Children's Hospital.