Child Illness Parent Advice Identifying Symptoms

When is calling the doctor necessary? Although most parents become proficient at identifying symptoms that don’t require calling the doctor, they often aren’t sure when symptoms become serious enough to require a call to the doctor or a hospital visit.

Identifying Minor Symptoms

Some minor symptoms of sick children include:

  • coughing
  • diarrhea
  • mild fever
  • nausea
  • runny nose
  • vomiting.

While diagnosing illness should be left to medical professionals, parents can often make accurate guesses when sick children have a cold or a mild case of the flu.

However, if even mild symptoms persist, parents should call the doctor. Cold symptoms that last for longer than two weeks may indicate allergies or other respiratory complications. Ongoing vomiting or diarrhea dehydrates a child quickly, causing other serious complications.

Calling the Doctor

Any of the following symptoms may indicate the need for further diagnosis and, therefore, may require calling the doctor or emergency treatment:

  • a chronic cough that interrupts sleep
  • behavioral changes
  • bulge or swelling in crotch or scrotum
  • small burns
  • fever higher than 100 F in infants under three months
  • fever higher than 101 F in children older than three months
  • head trauma
  • if a baby misses two or more back-to-back feedings
  • nosebleeds that don’t stop after 10 minutes
  • prolonged fever that does not respond to medication
  • rapid breathing or wheezing
  • skin rashes, blisters or hives
  • small wounds that don’t heal
  • sudden increase or decrease in urination
  • swollen hands, feet or face
  • tender abdomen
  • unexplained bruising
  • unusual and sudden change in stool composition, color or odor
  • yellow skin or eye whites.

Diarrhea and vomiting can cause dehydration. Calling a doctor is necessary if symptoms of dehydration are observed because dehydration can cause further physical complications.

A dehydrated child will have a dry mouth, lips and skin and will not produce tears even when crying. Failure to urinate within a six-hour period is another sign of dehydration. Dehydrated infants often develop a sunken soft spot, or fontanel, on their heads.

Identifying Symptoms of an Emergency

Calling the doctor is not enough in some cases. The following symptoms require immediate emergency medical treatment:

  • burns covering large areas of skin
  • difficulty breathing or sudden cessation of breathing
  • facial or throat swelling that restricts breathing
  • limpness or paralysis
  • severe abdominal pain
  • severe bleeding or injury
  • sudden loss of vision.

Pale color is a more complicated symptom: While paleness may merely indicate the child has a mild illness, it can also be a symptom of a more serious condition. A pale blue tinge or pale grey color to the face, fingernails and toenails may indicate a serious respiratory condition.

Diagnosing Illness

When you decide calling the doctor is necessary, you can help the doctor diagnose sick children by providing as much information as possible. Don’t make vague statements such as “She seems sick.” Specifically identifying symptoms, their severity and how long they’ve been occurring is much more helpful.

The doctor may need to ask specific questions while diagnosing illness over the phone. Having a list of symptoms and other information prepared facilitates talking with your doctor to identify your child’s illness.

Questions the doctor may ask include:

  • Are the symptoms worsening?
  • How does the child describe symptoms?
  • How long have the symptoms been present?
  • What are your concerns as a parent?
  • What symptoms are present?

Trust Your Instincts

Parents are often accurate judges of their children’s mental and physical health. If you suspect something is wrong, call the doctor or take sick children to a clinic or hospital. Although your instincts may be wrong, you will at least have ruled out anything serious.


Aetna (n.d.). When to call the doctor, when to treat your child at home. Retrieved February 21, 2006, from the Aetna Web site:

Parker, W. (n.d.). When to call the baby’s doctor. Retrieved February 21, 2006, from the Web site: