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When Should You Call Your Pediatrician?

Is your child really sick?

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Updated April 07, 2014

Knowing how to recognize when your child is sick and needs medical attention is important, both to get your child help when he needs it and to prevent unnecessary visits to the doctor or emergency room.

Most parents call their pediatrician when their child has a high fever, however, it is important to keep in mind that a fever is not the only sign of a serious illness. Whether or not your child has a fever, if he is very irritable, confused, lethargic (doesn't easily wake up), has difficulty breathing, has a rapid and weak pulse, is refusing to eat or drink, is still ill-appearing even after a fever is brought down , has a severe headache or other specific complaint (burning with urination, ear pain, if he is limping, etc.), or if he has a fever and it is persistent for more than 24 to 48 hours, then you should call your pediatrician or seek medical attention immediately.

Fever

Fever is not a disease, instead, it is a symptom that can accompany many childhood illnesses, especially infections. In general, you should call your pediatrician if your infant under three months of age has a rectal temperature at or above 100.4 F., if your infant aged 3-6 months has a temperature above 101 F., or if an infant above 6 months has a temperature above 103 F.

For most older children, it is not so much the number, but rather how your child is acting that is concerning. If your older child is alert, active and playful, is not having difficulty breathing, and is eating and sleeping well, or if the temperature comes down quickly with home treatments (and he is feeling well), then you don't necessarily need to call your doctor immediately.

Also, you should call your doctor if your child has a fever and another medical condition (heart disease, cancer, sickle cell, immune system problems, etc.).

Vomiting

Vomiting typically accompanies diarrhea as part of an acute gastroenteritis or stomach virus in kids. It is usually not concerning if your child has only vomited a few times, is keeping small amounts of fluids down, doesn't have significant abdominal pain and is not dehydrated.

You should seek medical attention for vomiting if your child is developing symptoms of dehydration (urinating less often, dry mouth, weight loss, etc.), is vomiting dark green bile (bilious vomiting is a sign of an intestinal obstruction), is a newborn or young infant with projectile vomiting (pyloric stenosis), or if he has a severe headache or abdominal pain. Vomiting is especially concerning if it begins after your child already has abdominal pain, which often happens in children with appendicitis.

Coughing

A cough and runny nose occur commonly in children with colds. If your child is otherwise feeling well, then you don't necessarily need to go to the doctor every time your child has a cough, even if he has a green runny nose. You should see the doctor if your child's cough or cold symptoms continue to worsen after 3-5 days, if they aren't improving in 10-14 days, or if he has another specific complaint, such as ear pain, a constant cough, chest pain, wheezing, or trouble breathing.

Trouble Breathing

While children often have a cough and sometimes a wheeze when they have a viral upper respiratory tract infection or mild asthma exacerbation, if your child is having difficulty breathing, then you should call your doctor. 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.

Dehydration

Children most commonly get dehydrated when they have diarrhea and vomiting, from ongoing losses of fluid, but it is also possible to get dehydrated if your child just isn't drinking well. 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.
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