Sick children. It’s a crazy terrain to navigate.
You may run into difficulties when you’re trying to decide whether your child’s illness warrants heading in to the pediatrician or – worse – urgent care or the emergency room.
It’s an uphill battle from the beginning if your child falls into one of the following three categories:
- Always healthy: These children would say they are “fine” even if they had snot running down their face and their arm was falling off.
- Perpetually sick: These are the children who cried wolf, so you’re never sure when a real ailment has struck.
- Non-articulate: These kids simply struggle to articulate how they feel. They may not have the vocabulary or they may just struggle to connect how they feel with right words.
When you are a parent receiving zero help from your child in terms of a diagnosis, it’s best to run through a checklist.
1. Does your child have a fever?
If your child is 12 weeks old or younger, you want to call your pediatrician if his or her temperature is above 100.4 degrees F. If your child is older, you may want to call if he or she has a fever between 102–104 degrees and is acting weak, sick, or the temperature is lasting for a few days. If your child’s temperature reaches 105, he or she needs to be seen immediately.
WebMD: If the fever is also accompanied by an inability to drink, confusion, rash, trouble breathing, seizures, constant crying, difficulty waking, persistent vomiting, or diarrhea, call your doctor right away.
2. Is your child dehydrated?
If you call a nurse line, one of the first questions you will be asked is whether your child is eating or drinking. Pediatricians want to make sure your child is not dehydrated. Signs you will be looking for: going six hours or more with a dry diaper or not using the toilet, dry lips, lack of tears, lethargy or weakness. Signs of dehydration warrant a call to your doctor or bringing your child in.
About Health: The first sign of dehydration is that your child will urinate less frequently (your child should be urinating every six to eight hours). Other symptoms of dehydration can include a dry mouth, not having tears when crying, sunken eyes, and decreased activity or increased irritability.
3. Does your child have labored breathing?
The common cold can bring with it a lot of unpleasant symptoms that you will wish could be treated with medication, but, alas, you are more than likely dealing with a dreaded virus. If your child is struggling to breathe, though, you will at the very least want to call your pediatrician. Illnesses associated with labored breathing include pneumonia, croup, and – for babies under two – RSV.
About Health: You can usually recognize that your child is having trouble breathing if he is breathing fast and hard, if you can see his ribs moving in and out (retractions), or if it seems like he can’t catch his breath.
4. Is your child vomiting?
Throwing up is an unfortunate part of childhood and isn’t necessarily a reason to dial up your pediatrician’s office. It may not be a common stomach bug, though, if your child is throwing up for more than 24 hours, the vomiting is unusually severe, or your infant throws up more than 8–10 times, or your older child throws up 10–20 times.
WebMD: When should you call a pediatrician? Scott Cohen, MD, attending physician at Cedars Sinai Medical Center and author of Eat, Sleep, Poop: A Complete Common Sense Guide to Your Baby’s First Year, recommends calling when there is: Blood in your child’s stool or vomit, abdominal pain located in one spot, a fever for more than three days, if your child has diarrhea and pees fewer than three times in 24 hours.
5. Is your gut telling you something is wrong?
If your gut is telling you that you need to call the pediatrician, call the pediatrician. Even if you are wrong, the saying “it’s better to be safe than sorry” is right on. Don’t hesitate to ease your own mind by talking with a medical professional over the phone or making an appointment for your child. You will also find that, as your child gets older and you learn cues and typical way of dealing with sickness, your gut will become more accurate.
WebMD: If you’re worried, call your baby’s doctor, period. That’s the recommendation of Chris Tolcher, MD, a pediatrician in private practice and clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Southern California School of Medicine. “Trust your instincts,” Tolcher stresses. “If your child is weak, lethargic, or if you have any questions, always call.
“With so many of these illnesses, we go by the child, not by a number,” Tolcher says, “so always pay attention to your child’s energy level, how they’re doing overall. … Call your doctor when you’re worried.”