When Should You Call Your Pediatrician?

Red Flag Symptoms

Do you know when to call your pediatrician?
Do you know when to call your pediatrician?. Stockbyte / Getty Images

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.

When To Call Your Pediatrician

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, fever 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.,
  • infant aged 3-6 months has a temperature above 101 F., or
  • 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.

A normal pulse ox reading does not mean that your child is not having trouble breathing, as a fall in oxygen levels is a late sign when you have breathing problems.

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
  • decreased activity or increased irritability

Weight loss is also a sign of dehydration.

Irritability

Fussiness accompanies many childhood illnesses.

An important way to tell if your child is 'too fussy', is whether or not he is consolable.

If your child is fussy and crying, but is easily calmed if you just hold him, then that is less concerning than a child who is not consolable and continues to cry.

An unconsolable child would usually be a reason to seek immediate medical attention, especially if they also have a fever or other symptoms.

Lethargic Child

If you call your pediatricians' office and say that your child is lethargic, a favorite word among many parents, you are likely to be told to bring your child in right away. Being lethargic, in medical terms, is usually an emergency and means your child is difficult to wake up. Many people use the term to mean that their child's activity is just a little decreased. I have had many 'lethargic' kids running around the office, only to find that the parent thinks their child is lethargic because he is just not as active as he usually is.

If your child is really lethargic and difficult to wake up, then you should seek medical attention right away. It is less concerning if he is awake and alert and is just not as active as usual.

Childhood Rashes

Children commonly get rashes, from having sensitive skin, warts, poison ivy and as part of many illnesses, such as chickenpox, fifth disease, and roseola.

In general, you should call your doctor if your child has a rash and a fever, especially if the rash is purple and doesn't blanch or fade briefly when you press on it, or an itchy rash that isn't relieved with home remedies.

Red Flag Symptoms

Other symptoms that are usually concerning and require medical attention include, but are not limited to:

  • coughing up blood, vomiting blood, or having bloody diarrhea, especially if is accompanied by a fever
  • persistent pain, whether abdominal pain, a headache or knee pain, or severe pain, especially if it limits is mobility and isn't relieved by home remedies, then you should call your doctor
  • seizures, especially if your child doesn't generally have a seizure disorder, such as febrile seizures or epilepsy
  • testicular pain, which is usually a medical emergency
  • head injuries, especially if your child had a loss of consciousness, is acting differently than usual and may have a concussion
  • cuts and scrapes that require stitches, including those with persistent bleeding, or if the wound is deep and gaping or the skin doesn't come back together
  • a severe allergic reaction that include trouble swallowing or breathing
  • a severe headache, especially if your child also has a stiff neck, irritability, vomiting or fever
  • pain when urinating (dysuria), which can be a sign of a urinary tract infection
  • weight loss, which is hardly ever normal in children and can be a sign of a more serious or chronic illness

For children with chronic symptoms, such as headaches or stomachaches, you should call your pediatrician if your child's symptoms seem worse then usual.

Parenting Problems

Your pediatrician should also be a good resource for you when you have parenting problems.

Many parents only make appointments for medical problems, but you can also make an appointment or call when your child has sleep or behavior problems, difficulty potty training, problems at school, etc.

Don't wait until the problem is out of control either. Some early help or advice may help prevent bigger problems from developing.

Calling Your Pediatrician

When in doubt, trust your instincts and call your doctor when your child is sick, especially if you think that your child is ill appearing. You should also call your doctor if your child's symptoms are worsening, even if he was recently seen by the doctor.

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