If you're a parent, you've probably wrestled with the question more than once when your kid got sick: Should I call the doc? Whether your little one has a fever, cough, or tummy ache, the moment always arrives when you wonder if it's time to get advice from a pro.

Rachel Bolton of Nashville, TN, got a lesson on when to make "the call" when she was 9 months into her new job: being a first-time mom. She checked on her son before turning in for the night and knew right away something wasn't right.

"He was sound asleep, but he was burning up," she says. "We took his temperature and it was 103 degrees -- the highest it had ever been."

Her first instinct was to call her pediatrician, but it was 11 p.m. Did she dare?
In a word: yes. Whether it's for medicines, minor illnesses, injuries, even parenting advice, you should always feel free to call your pediatrician's office.

"There's all kinds of wonderful information -- both in books and online," says Robert Mendelson, MD, a pediatrician in Portland, OR, and a spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics. "But when the time comes and you're trying to decide, 'Is my child sick enough to call the pediatrician for this information or that information?' The answer is, always yes, you should."

Pay attention to these key symptoms when you're trying to decide if you should pick up the phone and get your pediatrician's input.

Fever

Maybe the only thing more common than a fever in a kid is "fever phobia" in a parent. The tendency to freak out when your child's temperature spikes is normal, but it's important to remember that a fever isn't necessarily bad.

"Fever is an ally, not an enemy," Mendelson says. "When a child gets an infection -- and the majority of infections in children are from viruses for which there is really no specific treatment in most cases -- his body temperature goes up so that it can more effectively fight the viral infection. That's a good thing."

But there are times you should call your pediatrician if your child has a fever:

Your baby is under the age of 2 or 3 months. Get in touch with the doctor if he has any fever at all, even a temperature as low as 100.4 degrees.

"Because they have a less-mature immune system, an infection in a child that young can be a sign of something more serious," such as bacterial meningitis or pneumonia, Mendelson says.

Your baby is older than 3 months and also has other symptoms. If he's weak or vomiting in addition to a high temperature, check with the pediatrician. Same goes if his fever lasts for more than 3 days, Mendelson says.

Your child has a high fever. The American Academy of Pediatrics says to call your pediatrician right away if your child's temperature repeatedly goes above 104 degrees. That's especially important if he has other symptoms, such as a rash, trouble breathing, trouble waking, persistent vomiting, or diarrhea.

When you do call your doctor, be prepared to answer these questions:

  • What's your child's temperature?
  • When did you last take it?
  • How long has he had the fever?
  • Does he have any other symptoms?

Vomiting or Diarrhea

If it's a single episode, there's no need to worry. If either persists, though, then dehydration becomes a concern, says Ashanti W. Woods, MD, attending pediatrician at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. 

"To prevent dehydration, be sure to give him fluids regularly," he says.

Call your pediatrician if your child's symptoms become more severe or last for more than a few hours.

Also call if he can't keep fluids down and shows signs of dehydration. Your pediatrician will examine him and may order blood and urine tests or X-rays to make a diagnosis. If your child looks sick, the symptoms aren't improving with time, or the doctor suspects a bacterial infection, he may take a stool sample and send it to a lab to get tested.

Coughs, Colds, and Other Respiratory Problems

Older children with a cold usually don't need to see the doctor. If your baby is 3 months or younger, though, you should call your pediatrician at the first sign of illness, since colds can quickly turn into something more serious, like bronchiolitis, croup, or pneumonia.

When your child is older than 3 months, call the pediatrician if:

  • He's having trouble breathing.
  • He's got a stuffy nose for more than 10 days or a cough that lasts more than a week.
  • His ear hurts.

Rash

"Most rashes, especially in children, are harmless and clear up on their own or with appropriate treatment," Woods says. But call your pediatrician if:

  • Your kid doesn't have any energy, feels pain at the site of the rash, or has a rash that goes deep into the skin. 
  • He has a purple bruise-like rash or one that doesn't get better with over-the-counter treatments.

Pain While Peeing

If your child is complains about this, it's "a definite red flag -- especially with a girl," Mendelson says.

The doctor will check her for a possible urinary tract infection.

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