As parents, we're tuned in to every skinned knee, sneeze and cough. In the vast majority of cases, such symptoms don't warrant a trip to the emergency room or even a call to your GP. But how do you know when they do? Here are the top kids' symptoms you should never ignore:
1. High Fever
It's just a fact of parenthood: Your child is going to have a fever at some point. The good news is that fevers are completely normal and usually nothing to worry about. "Fevers are a response to infections — it means the body is doing what it need to do to fight them off," says Scott Goldstein, M.D., a pediatrician at The Northwestern Children's Practice in Chicago and a clinical instructor at Northwestern University School of Medicine.
Better Health Victoria recommends seeking medical help if your child: is aged six months or less, has a fever of 40C or more, is still feverish after a day or so, despite four hourly doses of baby paracetamol, seems listless or floppy, cries inconsoloably, or convulses or twitches.
All experts agree that parents should be more concerned with how their child looks than with the number of the temperature. If your older child is having trouble breathing, looking pale and acting out-of-the ordinary after you've given him medicine to reduce his fever, then notify your doctor immediately.
It's also a more accurate indicator to take their body temperature – such as under their arm – rather than using a thermometer orally.
Most children will complain of a headache occasionally, and there are plenty of causes for one: allergies, poor sleep, vision problems or just staring at the TV for too long. And in the vast majority of cases, headaches can simply be treated with a pain medication containing ibuprofen. However, there are some red flags to watch out for: "It is unusual for children under the age four to complain of a headache, for kids to wake up in the middle of the night with headaches (especially with vomiting), or for headaches to be accompanied by loss of balance, blurred vision, weakness, or loss of coordination," says Dr. Goldstein. "Any of the above needs to be evaluated by a doctor quickly, although usually you can wait until regular office hours. Severe headaches, ones that do not improve with pain medication, ones accompanied by neck stiffness or pain with bright light should be evaluated in the emergency room right away." Also, notify your doctor if your child's headaches are recurrent, particularly painful, or if they don't go away easily. Again, rest assured that most headaches are completely benign — it's just important that you notice out-of-the ordinary symptoms to rule out more serious conditions like bacterial meningitis, head trauma and, in very rare cases, brain tumours.
3. Cuts and Scrapes
Skinned knees and boo-boos are just part of the territory when it comes to little kids. There's no need to panic every time yours gets one — most will heal in no time. "Your first priority is always to control the bleeding and keep the cut clean," explains Anita Chandra-Puri, M.D., a pediatrician in Chicago and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. "If you can't control the bleeding after 30 minutes or if the cut is gaping, see your physician right away." Not only might your child need stitches, but it's also important that the physician cleans the wound thoroughly to prevent an infection. Also, notify your doctor quickly if, at any point, you notice redness or swelling around the wound, inflammation or discharge, or if your child is in excessive pain, lethargic or feverish. Not only do you want to make sure there isn't an infection, but it's crucial to rule out sepsis, which is a very serious medical condition in which bacteria gets into the blood stream and the body attacks its own organs and tissues as an immune response. "A cut shouldn't affect the general well-being of a child," adds Dr. Adesman. "Sepsis will make a child look very sick, so if your child has a cut and is suddenly feverish or has a change in his level or alertness, alert your doctor and/or seek emergency care immediately." A quick diagnosis of sepsis — which can be treated with antibiotics and intensive care — can be life-saving.