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If you're a parent, you've probably wrestled with the question when your kid got sick, "should I call the doc?" Whether your little one has a fever, cough or tummy ache, the moment always arrives when you wonder if it's time to get advice from a profesional.

My son has always been an extremely happy baby — so when he’s sick, it’s VERY obvious. At 6 months, when Ezra was really cranky for a few days, my wife and I called the pediatrician's office. The nurse said it sounded like teething. That, though, didn't seem right to us, so we asked to come in for a doctor's take. We both felt awkward. After all, with this being our first child, we’d only been parents for a fraction of this nurse's career. Who were we to second-guess someone with so much experience?

What we didn't consider was we had developed our own expertise on Ezra. We had become, more or less, "Ez-perts" on his body language, his temperament, etc. We could distinguish the "feed-me whimpers" from the "so-sleepy sobs" and other actions specific to him. Turns out, he wasn't teething. He DID have a double ear infection, however, which we were able to treat with antibiotics and a $30 humidifier from Wal-Mart.

Moral of the story: it never hurts to call the doc; and parents can certainly help medical professionals properly diagnose. Remember, kids get sick, period. But it's good for them to build immunities early! The hardest part is without a doubt watching them be sick and feeling powerless to help them, but worry not! For a lot of common infant illnesses, there's a lot of remedies parents can use to shorten the duration and decrease the severity of a sickness:

Fever

Maybe the only thing more common than a fever in a kid is "fever phobia" in a parent. The tendency to freak out when your child's temperature spikes is normal, but it's important to remember that a fever isn't necessarily bad.

How to treat: Low-grade fevers (101 degrees or below) typically aren't dangerous. Give baby Infants' Tylenol or Motrin (can be interchanged in 3-hour intervals), undress them, encourage them to drink fluids, and bathe them in tepid water. 

When to call the doctor: If your baby is a newborn (3 months or younger) and has even a fever of 100.4 or higher, if your child is younger than 1 year and has a fever of 102 degrees or higher, if a child has a fever of 104 degrees or higher, or if the fever (even a low-grade one) lasts more than three days. Drastic changes in behavior—such as your child's becoming very lethargic—are also cause for concern.

When you do call your doctor, be prepared to answer these questions:

  • What's your child's temperature?
  • When did you last take it?
  • How long has he had the fever?
  • Does he have any other symptoms?

The Common Cold

Ah, sniffle season is almost upon us. Young children get six to eight colds a year, primarily during fall and winter. Symptoms (a stuffy or runny nose and sneezing, coughing, and sometimes a fever) usually build for two to three days, peak for three to five, and then subside. Older children with a cold usually don't need to see the doctor. If your baby is 3 months or younger, though, you should call your pediatrician at the first sign of illness, since colds can quickly turn into something more serious, like bronchiolitis, croup or pneumonia.

How to treat: Avoid cough or cold meds, but give him Infants' Tylenol for fever. Dry air worsens congestion, so run a humidifier in Baby's room while he sleeps. If he's not drinking lots of breast milk or formula, give him water or, if your child is over 1, an electrolyte drink, like Pedialyte.

When to call the doctor: If your sniffling baby is a newborn, if they have a high fever, if they’re older than 3 months and have had a stuffy nose for more than 10 days, having trouble breathing or if their ear hurts.

The Flu

This very contagious virus travels quickly through daycares and families. An infected baby will be cranky and will lose interest in playing or eating. Then she'll develop a fever followed by a runny or stuffy nose and a cough. A flu-related fever can last three to seven days, and kids can continue to feel cranky for a few days after that.

How to treat: Care for your child as if she has a cold: Give her plenty of liquids and watch out for severe coughing or breathing problems. To prevent a future bout, get your child vaccinated, which experts recommend for all kids over 6 months.

When to call the doctor: If Baby is a newborn and sick, if it’s flu season and your child spikes a fever, or if symptoms don't improve within five days.

Ear Infection(s)

Kids often rub their ears, so assessing baby body language can be tricky sometimes. However, if they tug their ears and also have a stuffy nose and a fever, an ear infection might be the culprit. Infants are especially prone to these. And when they come, you have to be vigilant to get rid of them.

How to Treat: Some infections clear up on their own, but a prescribed antibiotic is really your best bet. You can also treat similarly to a cold or RSV by using a humidifier, giving them Infants' Tylenol and plenty of extra fluid. 

When to call the doctor: If you suspect infection. A severe, untreated infection can lead to a ruptured eardrum, and repeat ear infections can lead to hearing loss. Some parents have leaned on getting “ear tubes” (also called myringotomy tubes or tympanostomy tubes), which are very small tubes that are surgically placed in your child's eardrum by a pediatric ear, nose and throat (ENT) surgeon to help treat ear infections. The purpose of the tube is to provide ventilation to the middle ear and prevent fluid buildup. The tubes eventually fall right out on their own.

Hand, Foot and Mouth disease (HFMD)

However weird sounding, this one's super common. It's a virus characterized in children 5 and younger by mouth ulcers, fever and rash. The disease is different with each child, and some kids can experience symptoms more powerfully than others. Like other viruses, it can be passed from one child to another.

How to Treat: Over-the-counter pain medicine for little ones and plenty of fluids — for instance, ibuprofen on a scheduled six-hour basis followed by a big sippy cup of water. 

“Don’t worry about giving them solid food; liquids are the most important thing,” says Kate Carlson, M.D., assistant medical director and pediatrician at Vanderbilt Pediatric Primary Care Clinic. “Some kids do well with warm liquids like lukewarm hot chocolate, tea, etc. Some kids may like colder things like slushies and popsicles.”

If your child's in pain because of mouth ulcers, and avoiding liquids, he may become dehydrated, so you really need to monitor his intake. Throat lozenges may soothe  older kids' mouths (where they don't pose a choking hazard). The good thing is this virus typically goes away with hardly any treatment. Your little one will happily be playing in the yard in no time!

Diarrhea

Not the funnest ailment to treat (or clean!). Watery and frequent bowel movements are often caused by a virus; but a bacterial infection, allergy, food intolerance or medicine could also be to blame. For example, my son developed diarrhea while I was treating his ear infection with antibiotics. Sometimes, it’s a literal case of “pick your poison.”

How to treat: Usually lasts five to ten days. Dehydration is the main concern, so give baby lots of fluid. Is he also vomiting? Wait 30 minutes after he throws up to offer small, frequent doses of an electrolyte drink like Pedialyte. 

When to call the doctor: If it's a single episode, there's no need to worry. If it persists, dehydration becomes a concern. If your sick baby has a high fever, exhibits signs of dehydration (fewer wet diapers, sluggishness, skin that’s not as elastic as usual), or if there is any blood or pus in the stool.

Conjunctivitis

Commonly known as pinkeye, this condition makes your child's eyes look red and puffy. It's an inflammation of the eye's mucous membranes and usually affects both eyes at once but sometimes starts in one eye only. The cause can be a bacterial or viral infection: yellow or green drainage signals bacterial; no tearing or pus indicates viral. Another way to differentiate: viral infections usually come with cold symptoms. Both are very contagious and spread quickly.

How to treat: A viral infection usually clears up on its own within a week. Keep baby's eye area clean by gently washing it with warm water. If the infection is bacterial, your doctor will treat it with an antibiotic eyedrop. For either infection type, a warm compress will make your baby feel better.

When to call the doctor: As soon as symptoms appear. Consult a doctor to ensure the cause isn't bacterial and to get antibiotics if needed.

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)

This sounds scarier than it is. It's a common virus affecting the lungs and breathing passages. Premature babies are especially vulnerable because their airway and immune system aren't completely developed. It generally begins like a cold does; by day three, a strong cough and wheezing-like breathing begin. Symptoms recede after a few days, but the cough can linger for up to two weeks. Kids who have a bad episode have an increased risk of to developing asthma.

How to Treat: Use a humidifier. Also give him Infants' Tylenol and extra fluid. Cool air can calm irritated airways: place him in front of an open fridge for a minute.

When to call the doctor: If your child is a newborn and sick, shows signs of dehydration, if skin, lips, or tongue appear gray or blue, or if he has severe nonstop coughing or trouble breathing. "Notice if he's using extra muscles to breathe," Dr. Horowitz says. "Take off his shirt. If the spaces between his ribs get sucked in with each breath and his nostrils are flaring, call your doctor right away."

 

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