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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.