When your child takes his first steps the world opens up to him—the good, the great and the unhealthy. Suddenly he is exposed to things that can set off allergies, cause injuries, or make him sick. On a day-to-day basis, most kids navigate our treacherous world pretty well, but when health problems do occur, you want to be able to recognize the signs of trouble and know the right action to take.
For some health issues, the right thing to do is clear. “If your child is in severe pain—no matter where on his body or head the pain is—you need to get him to a hospital,” says pediatrician Jennifer Shu, M.D., co-author of Heading Home With Your Newborn: From Birth To Reality, published by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). “If your child has an injury to the head or neck, the best action is to call 911. Do not move your child.”
Here, more symptoms or combinations of symptoms you should never ignore:
1. Fever, rash, stiff neck, headache These four symptoms together can signal that your child has developed meningitis, a potentially life-threatening swelling of the membranes of the brain and spinal column. Meningitis that is caused by a virus is usually mild and can clear up on its own over a week or two, but meningitis caused by bacteria requires prompt treatment with antibiotics. “The rash of meningitis looks like somebody took a red fine-point pen and just made little dots that don’t blanch or disappear when you press on them,” says Dr. Shu. “The rash may begin in one area of the body and spread out onto other parts of the body and face.” If your child has these symptoms, call the doctor or get your child to the hospital as soon as possible.
2. Hives, facial swelling, difficulty swallowing or breathing These are signs of a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction, and may be especially likely to occur after your child is exposed to a new substance or food or stung by a bee. Call 911.
3. Trouble breathing Call 911 if your child’s breathing trouble comes on fast, especially if you see facial swelling, hives or other symptoms of allergic reaction, or if your child’s skin takes on a bluish hue, or your child passes out—all symptoms of an emergency. If your child is wheezing or experiencing fast or labored breathing over several hours, the cause may be asthma, or a viral infection such as influenza, pneumonia, or respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and will usually be accompanied by other symptoms such as fever, cough, sore throat. Call the doctor.
4. Bad headache Call the doctor for any bad or chronic headache your child experiences. Headaches that follow a blow or collision to the head, especially if your child also has other symptoms including vision changes, feeling dizzy or off-balance, mental confusion, sensitivity to light and/or noise, and changes in mood. All of these symptoms could signal a concussion (brain injury). Often these symptoms won’t occur until days after the impact occurred.
5. Fainting Call the doctor about any loss of consciousness, even if your child seems fine within a minute. Call 911 if your child remains unconscious for over two minutes, has difficulty breathing, has a weak pulse, and/or experiences body spasms (signs of a seizure).
6. Injuries to the eyes, ears, or mouth Whether it’s a blow to the eye, or foreign objects or toxins in the eye or ears, or knocked-out teeth, call your child’s doctor and or the appropriate specialist (opthalmologist, dentist, otolaryngologist) immediately.
7. Burns on lips or mouth Possibly accompanied by drooling and/or vomiting, stomach cramps, convulsions, behavior changes—and especially if you catch your child with an open container of a toxic substance, call the National Poison Helpline: 1-800-222-1222.
8. Frequent urination with weight loss, excessive thirst, lethargy. “These symptoms of Type 1 diabetes may occur over several days to a week in a young child,” says Dr. Shu. “Call your doctor; it’s best to catch and treat diabetes as soon as possible because if symptoms become severe, your child could go into a coma.”
9. Broken limbs that occur as a result of a fall or other accident, can cause immediate pain, swelling, inability to move the injured area , or protrusion of a bone or misalignment. If your child has a broken leg or if you are unable to stabilize a broken arm, call 911.
10. Bleeding Call 911 if your child has any injury or cut that is bleeding heavily. Call the doctor if you notice blood in your child’s vomit, urine, or poop, all possible signs of a potentially serious internal problem.
For more information on how to “read” your child’s symptoms, log onto the AAP’s www.healthychildren.org and type “symptom checker” into the search box.
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Laura Flynn McCarthy is a New Hampshire-based writer who specializes in health and parenting topics.