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When Should You Take Your Child to a Doctor?


When your child has severe vomiting and/or diarrhea that won’t go away

Neither vomiting nor diarrhea alone are cause for alarm. Most gastroenteritis or food poisoning is unpleasant, but should go away in 24 hours or so. As long as the symptoms are relatively infrequent and some nutrition seems to stay down, your child is probably fine. Give your child lots and lots of fluids (camomile or other herbal, non-dehydrating tea, sports beverages with sugar and electrolytes or even just water are all good choices) and easy to digest foods such as white bread, rice or congee porridge.

If, however, your child is experiencing severe, intense vomiting and cannot keep either food or liquid down even briefly, or has diarrhea for eight hours or so, it’s time to call in the experts. Either of these can lead to severe dehydration, in which case they may need an IV drip with electrolytes to keep their system stable. This is especially true for younger children, who are affected much more quickly.

Also, if you notice that your child is vomiting or excreting blood or blood clots, talk to a doctor immediately.

When your child has an intense, debilitating headache that lasts for hours

Normal headaches should disappear with a few hours of rest and over-the-counter painkillers. If your child has one that won’t go away or that is so intense that they cannot think about or concentrate on anything else, it’s time to take action. Also, watch out for headaches combined with other symptoms, such as a fever and vomiting, or headaches with neurological symptoms such as blurred vision, difficulty walking or mental confusion. 

When your child has a stiff neck for no apparent reason

A stiff neck is one of those symptoms that could either be nothing… or could be symptom of meningitis. The way to tell the difference is to look at what other symptoms the child is exhibiting. If they have a headache, sudden sensitivity to light and a fever in addition to the stiff, rigid neck, get them to a hospital immediately. However, if their neck is just slightly sore, they may have slept on it in an uncomfortable position or be recovering from a recent injury. Also, a stiff neck combined with a fever could be inflammation of the tonsils. It still merits seeing a doctor, but isn’t life-threatening.

When your child has a full-body rash

Although many parents panic at the first sight of one, your average child’s rash isn’t anything to get overly concerned about. If you touch a red rash and it turns white, or “blanches”, there’s a good chance that it’s a mild viral or allergic reaction. In general, these aren’t cause for immediate concern. Rashes on children’s arms or feet also tend to be harmless, though they’re always worth noting.

If the rash covers virtually the whole body or consists of small purple or red spots that don’t turn white when you touch them, get them to a doctor right away. This could be a sign of sepsis (blood infection that can lead to irreparable organ damage and death) or meningitis. If your child has a history of allergies and has experienced wheal or rash around the eyes, swelling of the mouth and difficulty in breathing, please seek medical attention immediately.

When your child has a high fever

Although fevers are scary, they’re actually a sign that the body is naturally fighting off an infection. They’re only cause for alarm if they’re over 104 F or have been going on and off for four or more days. Keep an eye on your child’s temperature and overall well-being, but you probably don’t need to call the doctor unless it’s around 102 F.

Photo Credit: Dra. Carmen G. Marquez via Compfight cc

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Piyarat Lertbunnaphong, M.D. Summary: Pediatrics Pediatrics