When to Take Your Child to the Doctor
Taking care of a sick child is a rite of passage for all parents. From wiping runny noses to cooling feverish foreheads to serving up chicken soup, every mom and dad has offered home remedies to kids feeling under the weather. And most of the time, children are back to normal in a few days.
But when could your child’s symptoms indicate something more serious, such as an ear infection or food allergies? When in doubt, reach out to your pediatrician. However, these general guidelines can help you decide when and how to treat a sick child at home—and when it’s time to see a doctor.
Common Symptoms in Children
No two kids are the same, but at some point, all infants, toddlers, and small children will come down with one or more of these common symptoms and conditions:
- Sore throat
- Head injury
Sick Child Treatment at Home
Depending on your child’s age, many common symptoms can be treated at home. If your pediatrician offers a nurse line, you may consider calling for advice about the best over-the-counter medications and other at-home remedies to relieve symptoms. The nurse may also be able to recommend when it’s time to see the pediatrician.
Here’s how to address these common childhood symptoms at home:
In some cases, a child with a fever should always be seen by a doctor. This includes infants under 4 weeks old with any fever, children younger than 3 months with a rectal temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, and children between 3 months and 6 months of age with a rectal temperature of 102.4 F.
You can treat other fevers at home by offering fluids often, monitoring your child’s temperature for any changes, and giving over-the-counter fever-reducing medication. Always read the instructions for proper dosages, and consult your pediatrician or pharmacist for advice on giving medications to babies younger than 6 months.
Any parent knows vomiting is a common occurrence during childhood and often doesn’t indicate anything serious. Babies are prone to spitting up, and toddlers and older children frequently come down with stomach bugs. In these cases, at-home treatment should start with plenty of fluids to fight dehydration. If an older child isn’t able to keep anything down, offer ice chips or a flavored ice pop. Younger children may need a kid-friendly rehydration drink, such as Pedialyte.
For children old enough to eat solid foods, the BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce and toast) offers bland foods that satisfy hunger, are easy on the stomach and provide nutrients lost during vomiting.
It’s important to remember that a cough is the body’s natural way of clearing the lungs. A cough itself is not harmful, but if it’s causing discomfort or interfering with sleep, you can treat it at home by helping clear the irritation causing the cough. Use a clean, cool-mist vaporizer or have your child sit in a steamy bathroom so they can inhale moist, humid air to help break up congestion and reduce coughing.
For children between ages 1 and 4, a small spoonful of honey can be a natural cough suppressant. Note: Never give honey to infants younger than 1 year old, as their digestive and immune systems can’t safely tolerate some of the bacteria found in honey.
Rashes can occur due to a variety of causes—including heat, skin irritation, viral illnesses, or allergies—and typically go away on their own. To minimize discomfort, such as itching or to prevent infection, treat a rash at home by washing the area thoroughly with gentle soap.
If the rash is due to eczema, it’s best to avoid soap-based cleansers, which can cause further irritation. Prevent scratching (which can break the skin and allow germs to enter) by applying cool compresses to the rash. Taking an oatmeal bath or using over-the-counter medicines that contain menthol, phenol or hydrocortisone can also help relieve itching.
Every child gets diarrhea, and most bouts are not serious. The key to treating diarrhea at home is keeping your child hydrated. Children lose a lot of fluids when they have diarrhea, and dehydration will make your child feel worse—and in some cases, can be dangerous.
Offer frequent drinks to your child, such as water, juice or milk. If you notice signs of dehydration—fewer wet diapers, lack of tears when crying, loss of energy—try an electrolyte rehydration drink, such as Pedialyte. Do not give your child over-the-counter diarrhea medicine unless instructed by your pediatrician.
A sore throat is a common complaint among children, and most of the time, it’s not due to a serious condition and it will subside a few days. However, soreness caused by a bacterial infection, such as strep throat requires professional medical treatment. In either case, parents can provide care at home to ease sore throat symptoms.
Drinking cool liquids or warm drinks, such as tea and chicken broth, can provide soothing relief. Gargling with warm salt water (dissolve one teaspoon salt in one cup water) can relieve soreness. Dry air can further irritate a sore throat, so run a humidifier to let your child breathe in moist air. For older children, you can give acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) to relieve pain. Follow the dosing instructions on the package or bottle; if you’re not sure how much to give, ask a pharmacist or your healthcare provider.
The severity of a head injury may not always be immediately apparent, so it’s usually worth seeking medical attention in all cases. If you do treat a head injury at home, it’s important to watch your child closely as you provide initial care.
Start by assessing the injury. If there’s blood, use a clean cloth to wipe it away so you can see the extent of any external injury. Cover open wounds with gauze or a clean cloth; apply pressure to any smaller cuts to stop the bleeding. Hold ice to any visible bumps or welts to relieve pain and help reduce swelling. Use acetaminophen to treat pain—but avoid aspirin or ibuprofen, as these can cause bleeding.
Watch your child for 24 hours after the initial injury. If you notice any changes in alertness or behavior, or your child experiences any new symptoms, such as vomiting, call your doctor right away.
When to See a Doctor for a Child’s Symptoms
If you find home treatment is not working and your child’s symptoms persist or even worsen, it’s time to call your doctor. In some cases, a combination of symptoms could also indicate a more serious condition that requires an office visit.
These general guidelines can help you know when it’s time to seek professional care:
Always see a doctor for any fever in infants younger than 4 weeks, and for high fever in children up to 6 months. For any age, consult your doctor if your child seems listless and lethargic, is more irritable than usual, or has a fever that lasts longer than 3 days.
Other baby fever symptoms that require emergency medical care include:
- Difficulty breathing
- A seizure that lasts more than a few minutes
- Stiff neck
- Extreme watery or blood-tinged diarrhea
Confusion or decreased consciousness
Most vomiting is associated with common stomach bugs and will go away after the bug passes. However, if vomiting is persistent or severe, or it’s accompanied by other symptoms, it could indicate a more serious condition that requires prompt medical care:
Call 911 and seek emergency medical care if your child:
- Is unconscious or very difficult to wake
- Has a high fever and stiff neck
- Has bloody or green vomit
Call your child’s healthcare provider and seek medical care if:
- Your child is younger than 2 months of age and vomits after all feedings.
- Vomiting has persisted longer than 24 hours.
- Your baby is wetting significantly fewer diapers than normal.
- Your child hasn’t urinated in 6 to 8 hours.
- The soft spot on your baby’s head looks flatter than usual.
- Your baby is crying, but there are no visible tears.
Your child is listless, excessively sleepy, disoriented, or confused.
In most cases, your child’s cough will go away on its own. However, if a cough lasts more than 3 weeks, seems to get worse, or your child also has a fever, it’s time to see your pediatrician. If your child’s cough seems to be related to physical exertion or contact with a specific substance, it could indicate asthma or allergies, which also need to be treated professionally.
Call 911 and seek emergency care if your child:
- Is choking, short of breath, wheezing, or laboring to breathe.
- Coughs up bloody or pink-tinged mucus.
While most rashes resolve on their own, in some cases a rash may be accompanied by other symptoms that indicate a more serious condition, such as a severe allergic reaction.
Call 911 immediately if your child complains of a sensation of tightness in their chest or throat or you notice:
These symptoms may indicate a severe allergic reaction.
Seek medical care if:
- The rash does not improve within a week.
- A fever or other signs of illness accompany the rash.
- You see scabs or areas of pus.
The rash includes tiny red dots (petechiae) that aren’t raised and do not fade when pressed.
Most cases of child diarrhea go away on their own. However, because infants younger than 6 months can become dehydrated quickly, call your pediatrician as soon as you notice diarrhea. For older children, call your healthcare provider if:
- Your child has diarrhea for more than 24 hours.
- You notice symptoms of dehydration. These include fewer wet diapers, dark urine, or no tears when crying.
- Your child’s stools are black or contain blood or pus.
Your child has a fever of 102 degrees Fahrenheit or greater.
If your child’s sore throat does not improve within a day of home remedies, it’s time to see your pediatrician. Your child may have an infection that requires prescription antibiotics. If your child has symptoms of strep throat —fever, swollen glands, headache, bad breath, and white or red spots on the inside of the throat—call your child’s doctor and ask for a same-day appointment.
If your child doesn’t feel better in a day or so after starting antibiotics, call your healthcare provider, particularly if your child seems to be getting sicker.
Call 911 if your child:
- Has difficulty breathing
- Has difficulty swallowing
Becomes confused or lethargic
All head injuries should be taken seriously, as internal damage to the brain may not be immediately obvious. If you notice changes in your child’s behavior or any new symptoms following a head injury, see your doctor right away.
Call 911 and seek immediate emergency medical care if your child:
- Has an open head wound
- Loses consciousness
- Exhibits increased confusion, restlessness, agitation, loss of coordination, weakness, numbness, or slurred speech
- Develops a headache that doesn’t go away or gets worse
- Has a dilated pupil in either or both eyes
- Vomits repeatedly
Has a seizure
Who to See for Children’s Symptoms
In most cases, your pediatrician will be able to address your child’s symptoms and treat any underlying conditions. You may also consider taking your child to an urgent care clinic, where providers can treat common conditions, such as cold, flu or ear infections, and can prescribe medications when needed. Many pharmacy chains also offer care for minor illnesses and injuries from certified nurse practitioners and physician assistants. (Contact your insurer to confirm your coverage.)
If your child’s symptoms indicate a chronic or more serious issue—for example, vomiting caused by a food allergy or a rash resulting from eczema—your primary provider will refer your child to an appropriate pediatric specialist, such as an allergist, gastroenterologist, dermatologist, neurologist, or ENT (ear, nose, throat) doctor.
As a parent, it’s natural to worry when your child is sick. When it doubt, call your doctor’s office. Your pediatrician or nurse can provide advice to calm your nerves and help you treat your child as quickly and effectively as possible.