Caring for Your Sick Child

Parents know they have choices when their child is sick: They can treat the child at home, make a doctor's appointment, go to the emergency room, or call 911. But at times, knowing which choice to make isn’t always clear.

“Many childhood illnesses, such as colds, stomachaches, headaches and even fevers, can be safely treated at home,” says Ellen Schumann, M.D., a pediatrician and a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics. “But parents need to know they should always call a doctor if they have any doubts or questions about how to take care of their sick child at home or if they should, in fact, seek medical attention.”

What to treat at home

Dr. Schumann says you can treat your child at home if:

  • The child’s symptoms are common, mild, and familiar.

  • The child is active and alert even though he or she has a fever, headache, or another symptom.

“The thing to remember with a fever is that it’s not how high the temperature is, but how your child is feeling and acting that determines if he or she needs to see a doctor,” says Dr. Schumann.

For example, you can most likely home-treat a child with a temperature of 101 degrees who’s up and about and acting normal. But a child who’s lethargic and irritable should see a doctor even with a temperature of 100 degrees. A fever is generally considered to be 100.4 degrees F and higher.

When to call the doctor

If your child has more serious symptoms, Dr. Schumann says, you should call a doctor for advice. A nurse or doctor will tell you what further steps to take.

When you call, be prepared to give detailed information regarding the child’s symptoms, such as when they started and if they have changed.

If your child has any of these symptoms or conditions, call your doctor’s office:

  • Cold, flu, or a stomachache that’s getting worse after several days of home care

  • Sore throat that’s severe or lasts longer than two days, or a sore throat associated with stomach pain

  • Stomach pain that’s chronic

  • Vomiting or diarrhea along with a fever or signs of dehydration, such as not urinating three times in 24 hours

  • Pain when urinating

  • An injury you can’t treat yourself but that is not an emergency - a small blistered burn, for example

When it's an emergency

Call 911 or take your child to the emergency room immediately if he or she has any of these symptoms, Dr. Schumann says:

  • Abnormal or difficult breathing

  • Decreasing alertness

  • Skin or lips that look blue or purple

  • Unconsciousness

  • Uncontrolled bleeding

  • Severe burn or poisoning

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