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What Do I Do When My Kids Are Sick?

Question of the Week

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Updated November 25, 2003

Q. What do I do when my kids are sick?

A. That's a good question. Knowing what to do when your kids are sick can help them feel better faster and decrease unnecessary calls or visits to your Pediatrician.

The usual advice that most parents remember is that they should:

  • Starve a Fever,
  • Feed a Cold.
And although it doesn't help to make your child better, that is usually what naturally happens. Kids with fever don't usually want to eat much, while children with a simple cold often don't feel that bad and have a good appetite.

A little more specific advice will likely be more helpful for you. Although there is no treatment for many of the childhood conditions that cause these symptoms, doing many of the things described below should help your child to feel better.

Vomiting

This is one of the more frustrating symptoms for parents, who often make things worse by pushing fluids too fast. If your child's vomiting is from a simple viral infection, while you do want to prevent him from becoming dehydrated, it is usually best to give frequent small amounts of fluid. An oral rehydration electrolyte solution is usually the best choice, and you can offer your child 1-3 teaspoons of fluid every 5-10 minutes. Even when vomiting a lot, they can usually handle this small amount of fluid. Popsicles are a good alternative.

As your child gets better and is vomiting less, you can increase how much you are giving him, for example, moving up to 1-3 tablespoons. After that, if he doesn't vomit for a few hours, you can increase the amount again to a few ounces at a time. If he begins vomiting again, give him a break for an hour or so and then try again and seek medical attention if he begins to get dehydrated.

Diarrhea

This is another common symptom that usually accompanies vomiting when children have a stomach virus. If your child isn't vomiting much, you can usually continue his regular diet and just give a few extra ounces of fluids every time that he has diarrhea. If your child doesn't want to eat his regular diet, then a more bland diet, such as the BRAT diet, which includes Bananas, Rice, Apple Sauce, and Toast, might be helpful. If he is hungry, you can usually continue his regular diet though.

Cough and Runny Nose

These symptoms are common in children with upper respiratory tract infections, such as a cold. If the runny nose and cough are bothersome, you can usually give your child a cough and cold medicine to help relieve his symptoms. When choosing a cold medication, pick one that covers the symptoms he is having, and avoid multi-symptom medicines unless your child has all of the symptoms the medication treats. For example, if your child has a runny nose and is sleeping well and isn't coughing, then you might just need a medicine with a decongestant.

Other treatments that might be helpful is using saline nasal drops in your younger child's nose and then suctioning them out to help clear his nasal passages. Older children might use a topical nasal decongestant.

A cool mist humidifier might also help if your child is very congested.

Barking Cough

Children who wake up barking like a seal usually have croup, a common viral infection. In most cases, your child was fine when he went to bed, and then wakes up in the middle of the night with a barking cough and trouble breathing. Some symptomatic treatments that might help include going into the bathroom, closing the door and turning on all of the hot water. Holding and comforting your child as he breathes in the steamed air is often helpful. A cool mist humidifier or going outside briefly if it is a cool night might also help. Seek medical attention if your child is having a lot of trouble breathing.

After the first night or two of barking, the symptoms of croup usually become more like a regular cold. Some children do need treatment with special breathing treatments and steroids, especially if they are having a lot of trouble breathing.

Fever

Most parents know how to treat a child's fever with acetaminophen or ibuprofen, but they still get scared when their child has a high fever. Remember that fever is just a symptom, and if your child is otherwise well, or feels a lot better once you get his fever down, then you don't usually have to be too concerned. Seek medical attention if your younger child (under 3 months of age) has a fever, or your child at any age has a fever and appears ill.

If your child develops a febrile seizure, seek immediate medical attention if it lasts more than a few minutes. If the seizure is brief and your child is well afterwards, you may just want to call your Pediatrician for advice.

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