Here are common childhood symptoms that may warrant a visit to the doctor’s office, clinic, or emergency room:
If your child is flushed and hot, your first instinct may be to see a doctor as quickly as possible, but this may not always be necessary. A fever is part of the body’s way of defending itself against an infection. If a child has a fever, it means that his immune system is working. A fever, by definition, is 100.4 F, taken rectally. You may want to take a toddler ’s temperature under his arm, but be sure to add one degree to the results, to get a more accurate number.
You can give your child medicine such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen (if the child is more than 6 months old) to reduce his fever. But be sure that it’s truly necessary, and keep close tabs on the dosage of this or any medication in children, whether it’s from a prescription or not. Remember, fever reducers don’t fight the infection that’s causing the fever, it just reduces the fever temporarily.
How can you tell whether your child’s headache is serious enough to warrant immediate medical attention, or if letting her skip school and sleep it off would help?
Minor headaches go away with over-the-counter pain relievers and/or rest. Major headaches do not.
If your child’s headache endures for several hours — or if the pain is so intense that she can’t eat, play, or even enjoy her favorite TV show — call the pediatrician. If it’s severe enough that your child cannot do his/her normal activities, it needs to be evaluated now.
Headaches can be commonly caused by tight muscles in the scalp, rather than a problem related to the brain, but a headache with neurological symptoms (such as confusion, blurred vision, or trouble walking) should be evaluated by an emergency room doctor.
Headaches combined with fever, vomiting, confusion, rash , or stiff neck should also be evaluated quickly as the child could have a serious infection or illness, such as meningitis, which is a medical emergency.
If a child gets headaches often, that needs to be evaluated. Children generally should not get headaches.
Don’t be too concerned about a rash on your child’s arm or feet; they’re generally harmless. If the rash covers her entire body, though, examine it to see whether you should get medical attention.
If you touch the red rash and it blanches or turns white, then you let go and it turns red again, you usually don’t have to worry about it. Most virus rashes and allergic reactions, including hives, will do that.
A non-blanching rash — small red or purple spots on the skin that don’t change color when you press on them — can indicate a medical emergency such as meningitis or sepsis, particularly when accompanied by a fever. This type of rash can also appear on the face after violent bouts of coughing or vomiting , so it’s not always a sign of something serious, especially if it’s just in one area.
To be safe, any time your child has small red or purple non-blanching dots appear on a widespread area, it’s best to seek emergency care at once, to rule out a more serious condition.
Another widespread rash which can be a medical emergency are hives which appear with lip swelling. Hives should be immediately treated with diphenhydramine (Benadryl). If there is lip or facial swelling, the child must see a doctor. If your child’s breathing is labored or your child complains about difficulty breathing, call 911 immediately. These symptoms suggest an anaphylactic reaction, which is a serious, life-threatening allergic reaction.
Vomiting and Diarrhea
When your child has food poisoning or gastroenteritis (the so-called “stomach flu,” though it has nothing to do with influenza), monitor how often they’re throwing up or having diarrhea.
Vomiting and diarrhea can lead to dehydration. If it is mild dehydration , your doctor may recommend giving oral electrolyte solutions at home, though treatment depends in part on the child’s age. If your child seems to be getting worse (not urinating or acting sick), you should see your doctor.
Vomiting three times in an afternoon may not lead to dehydration , but eight bouts of diarrhea in eight hours probably will, as will a combination of vomiting with diarrhea. Dehydration needs to be closely monitored and sometimes needs emergency treatment.
“If they’re losing it below and not able to retain the ideal fluid from above, they may need some IV fluids or prescription medication to stop the vomiting,” Schmitt says. “The younger kids are at the greatest risk of dehydration.”
A stiff neck can indicate meningitis, a true medical emergency, so parents may panic if they see their child standing rigidly, not moving their necks, or refusing to look left or right. But a stiff neck by itself is rarely anything more than sore muscles.
“Look at a constellation of symptoms, not just one in isolation,” Brown says. “A stiff neck alone might mean you slept funny. Meningitis is a combination of fever with a stiff neck, light sensitivity and headache.” Meningitis can also be accompanied by vomiting and lethargy.
A stiff neck with a fever might be as simple as a tonsil inflammation or swollen lymph node, not meningitis; calling the pediatrician could ease your fears. Of course, if trauma caused a hurt neck, that’s a clear reason to head to the ER.