Parental instincts tell you when something’s wrong, but there are some solid indicators that your child is sick. Remember that the severity of the symptom and what accompanies it will determine what to do next, says Dr. Marie Lozon, M.D., professor of children’s emergency medicine and associate chief of staff at the University of Michigan Hospital and Health Centers. Here’s a run-down of the classic signs and what they mean.
1. Fever. Occurs when the oral temperature is above normal, or 99.5 F (the average is 98.6). Low-grade fevers, at 100-102 F, are harmless and help the body fight infection, generally lasting two to three days. Anything over 105 F puts your child at high risk of bacterial infection; pushing 107 F, it’s serious and potentially harmful to the brain.
2. Runny nose. A virus-related cold is the most common cause. Green, yellow or clear discharge is standard. Lozon and other pediatricians agree that the color’s usually irrelevant, and doesn’t indicate a bacterial infection. If it persists for more than a few weeks, there’s a chance it’s allergies.
3. Cough. It’s a normal complaint, because young kids can’t clear secretions from postnasal drainage. If paired with a mild fever and runny nose, it’s likely a regular cold. A fever beyond 102 F could mean pneumonia. Coughs can last for weeks, notes KidsHealth.org, but if it lags past three, call the doc. (Learn more about coughs here.)
4. Muscle aches. When they settle into major muscle groups – legs, arms, shoulders, chest or abdomen – influenza is a usual suspect. These aches are accompanied by a high fever, chills and headaches, notes FluGuru.com.
5. Headache. Throbbing noggins frequently result from viral illnesses (colds), as well as the flu. Treating the fever will usually relieve the headache. Seek medical attention when there’s a high fever and persistent vomiting, advises Pediatrics.About.com.
6. Rash. It’s typically not serious unless it looks infected – or if broken blood vehicles appear under the skin. Causes can range from chickenpox and measles to a brush with a poisonous plant. Click here to learn more about a wide range of reasons.
7. Vomiting. This can crop up with many types of illnesses. It’s important for kids to re-hydrate with plenty of fluids. But is there also severe abdominal pain, headaches, stiff neck, high fever or frequent diarrhea? Then call your pediatrician, advises AcidRefluxConnection.com.
8. Sore throat. When linked to a cold, help can come in the form of a decongestant or pain reliever. If the discomfort is more severe, it could be strep throat – and time to visit the doctor.
9. Diarrhea. It’s usually caused by viral infection – especially when there’s vomiting or a low fever in the mix – or certain types of food-borne illnesses. As with vomiting, be mindful of providing extra liquids. Most cases will disappear when the virus works its way out.
10. Abdominal pain. Culprits are often linked to a stomach virus or constipation, notes Pediatrics.About.com. This is a concern when it’s very severe, persistent and not relieved by bowel movement or gas.
Learn when you should keep your child home from school, and get tips on surviving those brutal sick days at home with the kiddos.
This post was originally published 2009 and has been updated for 2017.