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With most little kids, you can expect about six to 10 colds a year. The good news is you can usually treat cold and flu symptoms at home with a few remedies and lots of TLC. But if you’re a new parent -- or even if you’re not -- how do you know when to call the doctor?

Symptoms to Watch For

We asked Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, a pediatrician and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, and Claire McCarthy, MD, a pediatrician in the Primary Care Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, for a list of symptoms that should be checked by a doctor.

  • Not feeding. Call the doctor if your baby’s symptoms are so bad he or she isn't eating normally. "A good rule of thumb is to make sure your baby is wetting a diaper at least every 6 hours or so," says McCarthy. 
  • Strange sounds or breathing problems. "If your baby is making strange noises when taking a breath in, or making loud noises during sleep, that’s a concern," says Swanson. You should also get the doctor on the phone if your baby is breathing fast for more than a few moments or having trouble breathing.
  • Fever. If your baby is 3 months or younger, call the doctor for any fever of 100.4 or higher, or if fever lasts more than 3 days. "Babies under 3 months are at higher risk for more serious problems when they get sick, so we like to see them right away," says Swanson. For older babies, call about any fever of 102 or higher, as well as any milder fever that lasts longer than 3 days.
  • Extreme sleepiness or crankiness. Nobody likes feeling sick, so you can count on some crankiness from your little one during a cold. But if your baby seems especially sleepy or irritable, it’s a good idea to give the doctor a call.
  • Bad cough. Coughing is good because it helps clear mucus from the lungs. But if your baby has a cough that doesn’t go away after 3 days, or a cough that’s so bad it causes vomiting, call the doctor. Another red flag: your infant has cold symptoms and there have been cases of whooping cough in your community. Call the doctor if your baby has noisy or troubled breathing, or doesn't seem to be drinking enough.
  • A cold that doesn’t go away. If your child’s cold symptoms don’t seem to get better after a week, call the doctor to make sure it’s not some other type of infection.
  • A chronic runny nose. When a runny nose doesn’t get better, or if your baby is sneezing and has red eyes along with a runny nose, call your doctor. It could be a sign of allergies.
  • Other symptoms. If your child has serious ear pain, blue lips, or a sore throat with a swollen neck and a fever, call your doctor. These could be symptoms of another type of illness.

Follow Your Instincts

When in doubt, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone. "A lot of parents want reassurance when their child is sick, and that’s totally normal," says Swanson. "Follow your instincts and call if you think there’s a problem."

Calling your doctor can also help give you peace of mind. "Colds can be really frustrating for parents, because in most cases there aren’t any medicines that will help," says Swanson. "But we can talk to parents and reassure them that they’re doing everything right."