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What symptoms are worrisome in a sick child?

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read
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Being a parent is tough and no tougher than when your child is unwell. While you get used to mild illness happening on a frequent basis – stuffy nose, mild fleeting fever, there may be certain symptoms that cause you to question whether you’re doing the right thing in staying home or whether you should take them to see a doctor.

When should I worry about a cough?

Viral coughs are common in children and sound awful, especially when they lie down for the night. They have narrower airways and a thinner rib cage, so we hear all of the rattlings in their upper airways, and this makes us think they have a chest infection or pneumonia. In this case, they would be quite unwell, with a high fever, lethargy, and refusing to eat. It’s best to get them checked out urgently.

When should I worry about that they’re not eating?

As parents, it’s your job to nurture your children, and providing sustenance in the form of food feels like a core part of this. Therefore, it can be alarming when your sick child is reluctant to eat. You worry they will starve.

Continue offering them bland foods, a little and often, like toast, or perhaps something easily digested like soup or pureed food, and take it away if they refuse, but don’t force them. They can cope for a few days without eating, but drinking is the vital thing to keeping them well and fighting whatever illness they have. Ensure they are properly hydrated.

When should I worry about their activity level?

Most children get a bit clingier when unwell, and their usual playfulness and bounciness diminishes. They will likely need more naps in the day. Most children will have fits and starts – they feel a bit better at times, especially if they’ve had acetaminophen for a fever, and if they’ve eaten or drunk something.

It’s worrying if they are lethargic throughout the day, sleeping significantly more and difficult to rouse when you try to wake them, or they don’t stay awake for long. They may be irritable, but most mildly unwell children will smile, interact or show curiosity at times. Those who are very unwell will not respond and may appear either inconsolable, with a weak, high-pitched, or continuous cry, or the opposite, be very quiet and disengaged.

When should I worry about a rash?

Children are destined to pick up lots of viral illnesses, and they build their immune system from there. Some illnesses we can identify, like the tiny blisters or crusty spots of chickenpox, but often doctors can’t specifically name the virus causing it. Many appear as tiny flat or raised red bumps, either during or just after a cough or cold, and this is called a post-viral rash or viral exanthems. It carries no threat and will get better within a few days.

An eruption of tiny red dots that don’t blanch under pressure (we’ll explain below) is the rash to worry about. There may only be one or two, but this could be a sign of meningitis. In this case, the child will likely appear very unwell, feverish, lethargic, and inactive, too, possibly with neck stiffness and reluctance to open their eyes to the light.

The blanch test is done by taking a glass tumbler from your kitchen cupboard and pressing on the red dot – if it disappears, this is reassuring, and if it remains red (doesn’t blanch), you should seek urgent medical attention. If you are concerned about their condition even without a positive blanch test, do seek a doctor out urgently.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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