It is a fact of life that at some stage in the early years a baby's life, he or she will become ill. Hopefully, for both the baby and the parents, it is nothing serious, and a quick trip to the doctor will take care of things. The complaints will then soon turn to the kiddo's boundless energy and half-wishing they were sick again.
One of the most significant problems with sick children is that it can be difficult to know just how sick they are. Babies, obviously cannot tell you if something hurts or what is wrong with them. Toddlers can become very upset over something small, and a troubling symptom like weight loss will not be bothering them. Even when your child is old enough to explain what’s up, they may downplay the issue or over exaggerate.
Should you be making an appointment with your family doctor in the next few days or taking them straight to an urgent care clinic today? Is it serious enough for a trip to the ER or are you just being overly worried over nothing?
Most of the answers to these questions come from experience. You learn to read your child as you grow together and most of the time you will have a good handle on how serious the issue is. However, if you are unsure, there are some symptoms that you should never ignore in your child, especially while they are still a baby. Here are those symptoms, why they are potentially serious and what you should be doing about them.
15 Hot, Hot, Baby
A temperature of more than 37.5C (99.5F) is a fever and is usually nothing to worry about in older children. In fact, a fever is the bodies healthy response to a viral or bacterial infection, a sign that the immune system is doing its job. Most doctors will say that fever itself is less important than how the child appears generally. If your child just seems a little “off,” it is safe to treat them at home for a couple of days with plenty of drinks and children's Tylenol.
If your child seems to get better then sick again a couple of days later check in with the doctor because it may be a sign of a secondary infection which might need treatment.
When Should You Worry? Carrie Drazba, MD, a pediatrician at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, says:“If your infant is less than three months and has a rectal temperature greater than 100.4 F, call your pediatrician. Fever in a newborn is very non-specific. It can be anything from a cold to meningitis, and we treat a fever more seriously in newborns.”
What Should You Do? A newborn should be seen by a medical professional as soon as possible after you notice symptoms, preferably within the next couple of hours. Older children only need to go to the doctor if they have other symptoms.
14 Can't Catch A Breath
Rare is the parent who has not hovered over their baby watching them sleep and fanatically monitoring their breathing. Most of us have had those moments where we are just beginning to panic because it appears they have stopped breathing and then your child snuffles, grunts and resumes regular breaths.
When Should You Worry? If your baby’s breathing is hard and fast and you can see them working hard to get air in, or they are struggling to expel it you should take the issue very seriously. Other symptoms that often accompany breathing problems include nostrils flaring on each breath, the skin “sucking in” between, above, or below the rib-cage, a pale or grey skin tone, or a whistling sound as they breathe.
Breathing problems could be a symptom of some severe conditions including bronchitis, pneumonia, asthma, and croup.
What Should You Do? If your child is struggling to breathe in this way call your family doctor or pediatrician straight away. If they are not available or you do not have a regular doctor, dial 911 or take them to the nearest ER immediately. Labored breathing reduces the amount of oxygen available in the bloodstream, and low oxygen levels can have significant consequences in a very short period.
13 Green Stuff Coming Up
If you were to panic every time your child threw up you would spend a considerable amount of their first five years in a constant state of fear. As a new parent, it can be shocking to discover just how much they throw-up, spit-up and generally spray everything in partially digested milk.
Spitting-up is totally normal. Babies spend the first few months getting the hang of feeding while their digestive system matures and in the meantime, they overflow, a lot. Milk usually comes up with wind, hiccups or your baby just overeating and it is not as forceful as vomiting.
When Should You Worry? If your baby vomits green bile, then it is time to worry. This can indicate that the intestines are blocked, and your child will need immediate attention. Bowel obstructions are usually congenital abnormalities and may be seen just after birth or may take several months to become apparent. A twisted bowel or a meconium blockage may also be to blame, but these are most often diagnosed in the first month.
What Should You Do? Call your doctor immediately or take your baby to the ER. "Bile-stained vomiting is an emergency," says Mike Farrell, M.D., chief of staff at the Children's Hospital Medical Center of Cincinnati. Surgery is often necessary to correct the problem.
12 Looking Blue
Dr. Danelle Fisher, chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, says: “Blue lips are a sign of cyanosis, which is caused by a lack of oxygen in the blood or a lack of blood circulation. Blue lips could occur when a child has heart disease, pneumonia, asthma or a list of rarer causes. In a happy, playful and healthy child who just ate or drank food or liquid with a bluish or purplish color, that is not a concern.
If there are other symptoms occurring, particularly respiratory symptoms, neurologic symptoms or extreme lethargy, the child should be brought to medical attention immediately.”
When Should You Worry? Older children might have blue lips because they are cold especially if they have been swimming in the colder weather or playing outside in the snow. Blue lips might also happen if they have recently eaten something blue, for example, blueberry flavored foods or candy with blue food coloring. If neither of these is factors are in place you should be concerned.
What Should You Do? As soon as you notice your child's lips turning blue or grey call your doctor. If your baby has blue lips call 911 or take them to the ER immediately.
11 Worsening Jaundice
Not all cases of Jaundice are dangerous. Some jaundice in the newborn is normal and will usually clear up without intervention, and your child will be assessed for any worrying symptoms of this condition before they are discharged from the hospital.
Jaundice is caused by a build-up of a substance called bilirubin in the body. This happens because the baby's liver is not yet fully functional and needs a few days to get up to speed. For this reason, the bilirubin levels usually peak at some point between the third and seventh day, then slowly decrease. In the meantime, your baby may have a slight yellow tinge.
When Should You Worry? Most doctors advise that you feed your baby as often as possible because this helps flush the bilirubin from the body via the digestive system. If you have been doing this and your baby is becoming more yellow, they may need UV light treatment. This phototherapy helps to break down the substances in the blood and allow the child's body to get rid of them. If this is ineffective, a blood transfusion may be needed to prevent serious complications.
What Should You Do? Jaundice alone is not a medical emergency, and you can afford to take a little time and go to see your doctor instead of going to the ER. Symptoms of worsening jaundice that should be assessed include:
- Your baby's skin becomes more yellow
- Your baby's skin looks yellow on the abdomen, arms or legs
- The whites of your baby's eyes look yellow
- Your baby seems listless or sick or is difficult to awaken
- Your baby isn't gaining weight or is feeding poorly
- Your baby makes high-pitched cries
- Your baby develops any other signs or symptoms that concern you
- Jaundice lasts more than three weeks
10 A Certain Kind Of Rash
Spots, rashes, and changes in the skin are one of the most frequent symptoms seen in children. They are also one of the most difficult to assess. Seeing a rash and consulting Doctor Google is something I imagine most parents have done, and most of us are none the wiser afterward.
With older children, it is a little easier to assess the severity of a rash. They can tell you if they have any other symptoms such as a headache or if the light hurts their eyes and this helps you decide if those strange spots might be a sign of something more serious.
When Should You Worry? If your child has a rash, which does not lose redness when a glass is pressed against it, or the rash is accompanied by one or more of the following symptoms:
- Scrunching up their eyes, turning away from, or being otherwise bothered by bright light bright light.
- Drowsiness or difficulty in waking up
- Mottled skin
- Cold hands and feet that do not warm up when you rub them.
This could be a sign your child is suffering from meningitis a potentially life-threatening swelling of the membranes in the brain and spine.
What Should You Do? Not all of these symptoms may be present in someone suffering from meningitis so do not wait for them all to appear. If you suspect meningitis see your doctor immediately, dial 911 or take your child to the emergency room.
9 Can't Get Enough
Another symptom that can be caused by something entirely innocent or that can be a sign that something is seriously wrong.
We all have different needs for fluids depending on our activity level, how hot and humid it is or even what we have been eating. A child who is a bit thirstier than usual for a couple of hours or even a day or two in warm weather is more than likely just in need of extra hydration. This is especially true if they are otherwise happy and healthy. In this case, offer plenty of opportunities to drink, and in older children give them plenty of food with a high moisture content.
When Should You Worry? If your child has an insatiable thirst, drinking at every opportunity, or can’t seem to satisfy their thirst, it could be a sign of type 1 diabetes. Other symptoms include extreme hunger, constant fatigue, weight loss, fruity smelling breath, and an increase in frequency and volume of urination.
What Should You Do? While type 1 diabetes is a serious autoimmune disease that should be addressed immediately, there is no need to visit the emergency room if you suspect your child may be suffering from it. Instead make an appointment with your pediatrician or doctor as soon as possible and let them know your concerns.
8 A Trickle That Won’t Stop
You would be amazed at the number of ways your child will manage to find to hurt themselves, even when you think you have childproofed ever corner of your home.
Even babies who are just learning to crawl are experts at finding ways to bang their heads or pinch their fingers.
When our oldest son was a toddler, I discovered just how dramatic a relatively minor cut to the head could look. The scalp is especially rich in blood vessels, and even a small wound can bleed profusely. I also learned that any cut, to the head or not, should bleed less if you apply pressure to it.
When Should You Worry? If you are in doubt whether or not your child's bleeding is serious, apply pressure to the would, with a gauze or a clean, dry, fluff-free cloth for ten minutes. If this does not stem the flow of blood, then your child may need stitches or other medical intervention.
What Should You Do? If it is immediately obvious that the wound is serious call 911 or visit the ER. If you are unsure, applied pressure and the wound is still bleeding go to the ER or your nearest urgent care center as not all family doctors will perform stitches.
If the pressure does stem the blood flow kept the wound clean and covered until it heals.
7 Changes In #1
Second only to poop in the “things I will watch and analyze obsessively” category, the amount, frequency, color, and consistency of your little one's urine will take on a strange importance to you.
To complicate matters, there are no set “normal” numbers to tell you how often your baby should wet a diaper. Healthy Children.org says: “Your baby may urinate as often as every one to three hours or as infrequently as four to six times a day. If she’s ill or feverish, or when the weather is extremely hot, her usual output of urine may drop by half and still be normal.”
When Should You Worry? Urination should never be painful. If your baby is showing any sign of distress when they pee they may have a urinary tract infection.
You should also be concerned if your little one is peeing a lot less without any apparent explanation like hot weather or a fever, or if you see blood in your baby’s diaper.
What Should You Do? If your baby is otherwise healthy offer plenty of fluids and see if this helps. If your child is unusually fussy, has a depressed fontanelle or their skin doesn't bounce back when gently pinched they may be dehydrated so visit your doctor that day. Blood in the urine is never normal, and you should also see your doctor the same day.
6 Belly Pain
The causes of belly pain in your baby can range from wind and gas, colic, or overeating to appendicitis and any number of other serious conditions. It is, of course, especially difficult to tell if your baby has pain in their abdomen because they cannot tell you about it. The most evident sign is usually fussiness, an inability to settle down and excessive crying.
When Should You Worry? If your baby appears to have pain in the belly that comes and goes as well as general fussiness, watch to see when this pain seems to happen. If it is after a feed, it may be gas. If the pain seems worse in the afternoon or evening, and the pain causes crying for more than three hours at a time more than three days a week, it could be colic.
If the pain is accompanied by vomiting or diarrhea, it could be a stomach bug, and if there is a fever, it could be a urinary tract infection or appendicitis.
What Should You Do? For gas and colic consult your health professional for the best ways to cope, especially if it is colic that is prolonged. If your baby shows any signs of fever, vomiting, or diarrhea and is under three months old seek help immediately. If your baby is older than six months and has symptoms other than those of gas or colic consult your doctor the same day.
5 Extreme Fatigue
You would assume that because your baby is waking several times a night that they would be as exhausted as you are but this is not the case. Your baby is programmed to wake, eat, and sleep in relatively short cycles and will be happy and energized on tiny amounts of sleep.
If your baby begins to show signs of excessive tiredness, there may be a problem.
When Should You Worry? Extreme fatigue means that your baby is not waking regularly for feeds or is falling asleep quickly before finishing a feed. The occasional dozing off during a feed is OK but if they wake up hungry, begin to eat and then doze off very quickly, or your baby seems to be too tired to feed you should take notice.
What Should You Do? If your child is difficult to wake or appears to be dizzy or confused, do not wait. You should seek emergency medical help immediately by calling 911 or taking them to the ER. If they just seem to be more tired than usual make an appointment with your doctor to discuss the issue. It could be as simple as a growth spurt that is tiring them out, or it could be something more serious such as anemia, dehydration or a malabsorption condition.
4 Changes In Weight
A child’s weight is one of the universal measures of general health. There are weight charts with percentiles, websites with averages and elderly relatives with vague measures such as “bonny.” Just as with older children and adults, a baby’s weight can vary according to some factors including prematurity, their birth weight, their length, and genetics, so it is important to remember not to compare your baby against another of the same age. My own five children have ranged in birth weight from 4 lbs 1oz to 11lbs 9 & ½ ozs, and they were all born within two weeks of their due dates.
When Should You Worry? Babies gain and lose weight on a regular basis. Most newborns will lose an average of 7% of their birth weight in their first few days and then regain it by around day ten.
If your baby losses more than 7% of their weight, or fails to make it back again after ten days this could be a problem.
In older babies and children their general health, and meeting their developmental milestones are a better indicator of their well being than their weight.
What Should You Do? For a newborn that losses more than 7% of their body weight or who does not gain it back after ten days visit your doctor in the next day or so. The same goes for an otherwise healthy child who is losing weight. If your older child drops more than 7% of their body weight, is displaying other symptoms of illness or is excessively fussy see your doctor as soon as possible. The same goes for a child who is not meeting their developmental milestones.
3 Swelling Or Itchiness
We often hear adults sneezing and saying “it’s just allergies” but being allergic to something can be at best an occasional mild inconvenience and at worst, fatal. An allergy is the body's reaction to something it mistakenly sees as a threat. The threat the body reacts to is called an allergen. The immune system incorrectly identifies the allergen as a dangerous invader and lets loose an arsenal of weapons, called histamines, that cause symptoms such as sneezing, itching, runny nose, watery eyes, and coughing.
When Should I Worry? Allergies can be difficult to distinguish from colds and flu but the main difference to look for is the duration of symptoms and the presence of a fever. It may be an allergy if your child:
- Appears to have a cold, without a fever, for longer than ten days.
- Has watering, itchy eyes and you are sure they have not squirted or sprayed something in them.
- Constantly wipe their nose, sniffs, or rubs at their eyes or nose for some days
- Experiences localized swelling in one part of the body.
What Should I Do? If you suspect food is the culprit try excluding it from the diet unless it is a major food group such as dairy or gluten. In this case, do not try to diagnose the allergy yourself, take your child to the doctor when it is convenient
If your child suffers any swelling, especially of the face, the throat or the tongue dial 911 or visit the ER immediately.
WebMD also says: “Food allergies can cause sudden and serious life-threatening symptoms. For example, your child might have extreme trouble breathing and a sharp drop in blood pressure that can cause shock. Signs of shock include pale, clammy skin and dizziness. This type of reaction is called anaphylaxis. You should get medical care right away if you notice any of those signs.”
2 Changes To A Mole
It is very rare, but not unknown for babies and children to suffer from skin cancer. If your baby is born with a mole to get into the habit of taking a quick look at it once a month or so to ensure it has not changed in any way. The National Cancer Institute says: “A common mole is usually smaller than about 5 millimeters wide (about 1/4 inch, the width of a pencil eraser). It is round or oval, has a smooth surface with a distinct edge, and is often dome-shaped. A common mole usually has an even color of pink, tan, or brown. People who have dark skin or hair tend to have darker moles than people with fair skin or blonde hair.”
When Should You Worry? Remember the ABC’s of moles. If you notice:
- Asymmetry: One half of the mole does not match the other half;
- Border: The border or edges of the mole are ragged, blurred, or smudgy;
- Color: The mole has different colors such as black, blue, white, or red;
- Diameter: The diameter of the mole is larger than the diameter of a pencil;
- Evolving: The mole looks different from others and is changing in size, color or shape.
What Should You Do? If you notice one of these changes make an appointment with your doctor so they can check the mole.
1 Anything That Bothers You
Let’s be honest: some parents are more prone to seeking medical advice than others. We all know that one mom who is always convinced he baby has bubonic plague, Ebola, or whatever the most reported on illness is in the news that week. We are all also concerned that we might turn into that over-dramatic mom. Here’s a hint, if you are concerned you might be wasting someones time and worrying too much then you are NOT that mom.
There are so many uncommon symptoms that could be nothing but, at the same time could be a sign of something serious that it would be impossible to list them all here. As a mom of five, my advice would be, if you are worried get it checked out.
With a baby under three months do not hesitate to call your doctor for advice if your child is displaying a symptom or a behavior that is unusual and makes you concerned. For older babies and children, as long as it is not an obvious emergency, make an appointment in the next week or so to discuss your concerns.
Finally, if you have seen a doctor and feel that they have dismissed your concerns or you are still worried do not be afraid of asking to see another doctor for a second opinion or returning to the doctor for another assessment.
References: webmd.com, healthline.com, nhs.uk, mayoclinic.org, niddk.nih.gov, kidney.org, healthychildren.org, cancer.gov, skin-analytics.com, everydayhealth.com