You Should Call the Pediatrician If...

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male doctor as he examines a patient's throat
Kids get sick -- a lot. Sometimes you can address the illness with an over-the-counter remedy. Other times, a trip to the doctor may be in order. See more pictures of staying healthy.

We've all probably seen the old gag in sitcoms where an overly conscientious mom or dad takes a newborn or small child to the doctor over every perceived ill. The exasperated pediatrician eventually tells the parents they must find a new doctor ... and the scene ends with a laugh track. It might be a silly plotline, but in real life, many parents and pediatricians find themselves in similar circumstances.

As a parent, it's natural to be protective of your child. And if you're a new mom or dad, you may not be used to all of the little fevers, sniffles and rashes that young children collect from infancy throughout early childhood. So, you can be forgiven for rushing your little one to the clinic more often than you should. In fact, it is always best to err on the side of caution. If you're really worried or unsure about your child's health, you should feel comfortable in calling or visiting your pediatrician's office. But for many health woes, you can treat your child at home.

Sometimes home treatments are the better option. According to microbiology professor and germ expert Chuck Gerba, waiting rooms in pediatricians' offices are some of the more germ-laden places around -- they're only slightly more sanitary than a restroom. So cutting out unnecessary visits may actually protect your child from further illnesses.

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The key to knowing when to visit the doc and when to stay at home is being educated on what's normal -- and what's not -- for kids your child's age. Get acquainted with common symptoms and illnesses, and also familiarize yourself with the hallmarks of dangerous diseases like meningitis. If you're ever unsure about what warrants a visit to the doctor and what doesn't, call your pediatrician's office. A quick consultation with the doctor, a physician's assistant or nurse practitioner can ease your mind or let you know if you need take further steps. On the following pages, we'll help you get to know the basics of childhood illnesses and at-home treatments so that you'll know when you should -- or shouldn't -- make that call.

Understanding Childhood Illnesses

Last month it was strep throat. This week it was an ear infection. Next up is probably a tummy ache. Kids get sick. A lot. And those are just the illnesses. The injuries come on a fairly regular basis as well -- the bumped noggin, the bruised knee. Childhood can be a perilous time, fraught with bruises, scrapes, coughs and more.

As hazardous as childhood is, it's a breeze compared to what it used to be. Only a few decades ago, parents had to worry about their kids coming down with dangerous diseases like mumps, polio and whooping cough. Fortunately, these days you can follow a pediatrician-recommended vaccination schedule that will save your child the danger and misery of those ailments.

That's not to say there aren't dangerous conditions still out there. And even common illnesses like the flu can occasionally take a turn for the worse.

That's why pediatricians suggest you should be on the lookout for things such as an unexplained rash, continuous or severe pain in the head, ears, throat or stomach, excessive or unrelenting vomiting or diarrhea, delirious or unusual behavior, convulsions or seizures, or extreme irritability and difficulty sleeping.

Other causes for concern include loss of appetite for several days, difficulty breathing, inability to keep down liquids and produce urine, a stiff neck, illnesses that don't improve after four to five days, or a high, ongoing fever.

When it comes to fevers, visit a pediatrician when your child's temperature goes over the following marks:

 Less than 2 months old
 3 to 6 months old
 More than 6 months old
 More than 100.4 degrees F (38 C)
 More than 101 degrees F (38.3 C)
 More than 103 degrees F (39.4 C)

When it comes to injuries, you should seek medical attention when the following occur:

  • A head injury that results in a loss of consciousness (even for a moment), abnormal walking, head or neck pain or inconsolable behavior
  • A severe reaction to an insect bite
  • A snap is heard during an injury, or the injured area swells or is difficult to move
  • Bleeding continues after 5 minutes of pressure, or a wound appears to be deep or longer than inch
  • An attack by an animal

Keep reading to learn how to treat minor illnesses and injuries at home.

Treating Symptoms at Home

Are Antibiotics Needed?
Often, your child's pediatrician won't write you a prescription for antibiotics. The doctor isn't being stingy; antibiotics will only treat bacterial infections. If your child were to take an antibiotic for a viral infection like the cold or flu, not only would the medication be useless, but it could build up his or her resistance to antibiotics, making future illnesses more difficult to treat.

Have you ever noticed that the remedies a mom (or dad) gives just seem to be better? Even when you grow up and become a parent yourself, you find yourself longing for your mom's chicken soup when you're sick. Some of the best care you can give your child is your own. Of course you should always follow standard medical guidelines, but adding in a few homespun treatments and TLC are often what the doctor orders as well.

You should keep your house -- and car -- stocked with standard first aid kits for minor injuries. Supplies such as bandages, rubbing alcohol, ice packs, sterile gauze, hydrocortisone cream and tweezers can address a number of injuries, from splinters and ticks to sprains and skinned knees.

If your child seems to have a common cold or run-of-the mill stomach virus, you'll find that the aisles of your local drugstore are filled with antidotes to their symptoms. Always opt for children's versions of medicines rather than adult varieties. In some cases, adult formulas can be given to children at lower doses, but it's best to consult with your pharmacist or pediatrician before selecting such an option. Keep in mind that cold and flu medicines shouldn't be given to children under age 2, throat lozenges shouldn't be given to children under age 4 and ibuprofen shouldn't be given to babies under 6 months of age. Ask your doctor about risks associated with aspirin and Reye's syndrome, which causes swelling of the liver and brain.

While you're at the drugstore, be sure to pick up a thermometer if you don't already have one. It's important for keeping track of a child's fever when he or she is sick.

There are other things beyond medication you can do to help ease your child's symptoms:

  • Humidifiers and vaporizers help ease nasal and chest congestion
  • Saline solution (either store-bought or homemade) is good for a stuffy nose
  • Honey is great for a cough, but don't give it to babies under a year old

And about mom's chicken soup ... a study by a researcher at the University of Nebraska Medical Center found that the comfort food has an actual medicinal effect on upper respiratory infections due to certain anti-inflammatory properties in its ingredients.

On the next page, we have lots more information on childhood illnesses and health conditions.

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More Great Links



  • "10 Things Your Pediatrician Won't Tell You." Jan. 18, 2001. (Oct. 22, 2010)
  • American Academy of Pediatrics. "When to Call the Pediatrician." Aug. 12, 2010. (Oct. 22, 2010)
  • American Academy of Pediatrics. "Why doesn't my pediatrician prescribe antibiotics every time my child is sick?" Aug. 16, 2010. (Oct. 22, 2010)
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "2010 Child & Adolescent Immunization Schedules." (Oct. 22, 2010)
  • Cronan, Kate, M.D. "First-Aid Kit." August 2010. (Oct. 22, 2010)
  • Dowshen, Steven, M.D. "Bleeding." November 2007. (Oct. 22, 2010)
  • Durani, Yamini, M.D. "Head Injuries." May 2007. (Oct. 22, 2010)
  • Greene, Alan, M.D. "When should you call the pediatrician?" HowStuffWorks. (Oct. 22, 2010)
  • "Caring for a Child with a Viral Infection." (Oct. 22, 2010)
  • "Allergic Reactions." (Oct. 22, 2010)
  • "Broken Bones." (Oct. 22, 2010)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Cold remedies: What works, what doesn't, what can't hurt." Feb. 23, 2010. (Oct. 22, 2010)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Reye's syndrome." Sept. 18, 2009. (Nov. 4, 2010)
  • University of Nebraska Medical Center. "Chicken Soup for a Cold." Oct. 21, 2008. (Oct. 22, 2010)