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5 Serious Symptoms in Children to Never Ignore

What to keep in mind if your child gets a very high temperature or other worrisome symptoms.
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WebMD Feature

Runny noses. Stomachaches. An itchy rash. These are a few of the typical ailments that occasionally plague children everywhere.

But what if something more serious develops, like an extremely high fever or a stiff neck? You may not know whether to rush to the emergency room, call the doctor, or simply wait it out at home.

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“If your child looks very weak - sick as they've ever been - the parents need to call their doctor now,” says pediatrician Barton Schmitt, MD, who supervises the After Hours Call Center at the Children's Hospital in Aurora, Colo., which takes calls for 590 pediatricians every night. “Of those calls, 20% are sent to the ER, 30% need to be seen the next day in the office, and half can be safely cared for at home," Schmitt says.

Some parents may worry that their instinct to head to the ER after the pediatrician's office is closed will be questioned by the doctor on call if nothing serious turns up, but it's generally wise to trust your gut feeling.

“Some parents think they shouldn't go to the hospital because they'll be ridiculed, but there's nothing wrong with an ER visit that results in nothing but reassurance,” says Alfred Sacchetti, MD, chief of emergency medicine at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Camden, N.J., and spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians. “If something happened, you wouldn't have been able to live with it.”

Here are common childhood symptoms that may warrant a visit to the doctor's office or emergency room. If you have a baby, check WebMD's article on when to take a baby to the doctor or ER, because the criteria are different for babies than for older kids. And with kids of any age, don't hesitate to ask a health care professional when you're in doubt.

High Fever in a Child Older Than 1

If your child is flushed and hot, your first instinct may be to see a doctor as quickly as possible, but this may not always be necessary.

“We constantly try to teach parents not to look at the thermometer, but what kids' symptoms are and what they look like,” says Schmitt, who created the KidsDoc app for smartphones from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), a triage system that helps parents figure out how to treat kids' symptoms.

A fever is part of the body’s way of defending itself against an infection. If a child has a fever, it means that his immune system is working. A fever, by definition, is 100.4 F, taken rectally. You may want to take a toddler’s temperature under his arm, but be sure to add one degree to it, to get a more accurate number.

You can give your child medicine such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen (if the child is more than 6 months old) to reduce his fever. But be sure that it's truly necessary, and keep close tabs on the dosage of this or any medication in children, whether it's from a prescription or not. Remember, fever reducers don’t fight the infection that's causing the fever.

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