Is my child sick?

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Is my child very sick?

Healthy young children have up to 12 infections each year. These are a normal part of childhood. As a parent or caregiver you deal with these but you may worry about missing a serious illness.

There is no foolproof system to tell you whether or not your child is seriously ill. Knowing your child and seeing a change in your child’s behaviour could be the most important clue.

What do you do if you think your child is sick?

If you are worried about your child, whether or not there is a fever, you should take them to see a doctor.

Depending on the circumstances you may decide to:

  • call Healthline on 0800 611 116 if you are unsure what you should do
  • see your GP (general practitioner)
  • go to an after hours medical centre
  • dial 111 within New Zealand (use the appropriate emergency number in other countries) for urgent medical help

You should stay calm and explain why you are worried about your child. Ask for your child to be seen by a doctor.

If you are waiting to be seen and think that your child is getting sicker, calmly explain again why you need your child to be seen soon.

If your child has already seen a doctor but they are getting worse, you should take them back for another check. It can help to take your child back to the same doctor but this won't always be possible.

In some circumstances it might be better to dial 111 within New Zealand (use the appropriate emergency number in other countries) for help rather than travel to the doctor using your own car.

When should I seek help?

Dial 111 within New Zealand (use the appropriate emergency number in other countries) and ask for urgent medical help if your child:

  • has blue lips and tongue
  • has severe difficulty breathing
  • has any episodes of irregular or stopping breathing
  • has a worrying rash especially one that does not go away when you press on it (see a photo of a meningococcal rash)
  • is unconscious or you can’t wake them up properly
  • has been in a serious accident

You should see a doctor urgently if your child:

  • is under 3 months old - young babies need a different and more cautious approach. See 'What about young babies?' below
  • looks unwell and you are concerned
  • is very pale or feels cold to touch
  • is floppy, sleepy or drowsy
  • is becoming less responsive
  • has an unusual high-pitched cry
  • has trouble breathing, has noisy breathing or is breathing fast
  • complains of a stiff neck or light hurting their eyes
  • has a severe headache
  • refuses to drink - even small sips
  • is not doing wee
  • vomits a lot – and cannot keep sips of replacement drinks down
  • vomits green fluid (bile)
  • vomits blood – this may be red or brown or look like coffee grounds if it is not fresh
  • has black tar like poo or blood in their poo
  • is in severe pain
  • is not interested in surroundings (lethargic)

You should see a doctor if your child:

  • is under 3 months old - young babies need a different and more cautious approach. See ‘What about young babies?’ below
  • has a sore throat or joint pains
  • is drinking less than half of their normal breastmilk or other fluid
  • is having fewer than 4 wet nappies in 24 hours
  • is doing wee that is very dark or has blood in it
  • vomited half or more of their feed for the last 3 feeds
  • has frequent and watery poo (diarrhoea)
  • complains or cries when doing wee
  • is in pain
  • is getting sicker
  • has a fever and is not improving after 2 days
  • has had a fever for more than 5 days

You can look after your child with a fever at home if they:

  • are drinking and feeding well
  • are still interacting with you
  • do not look sick

What about young babies?

Young babies (less than 3 months old) need a more cautious approach. If your child is under 3 months old and you are worried about them, they should be checked by a doctor, even if they do not have any of the above symptoms. You should trust your instinct.

  • if they have a fever, they should always be checked by a doctor
  • if you are worried about them, they should be checked by a doctor even if they do not have a fever
  • some babies may have an unstable temperature with an infection – they may be colder than normal. In a sick infant this is a worrying sign. It is a reason to see a doctor urgently 
  • babies get fevers for the same reasons as older children, but they are not as good at fighting off infections
This page last reviewed 19 March 2015
© Paediatric Society of New Zealand and Starship Foundation 2005 – 2015
Printed on 03 July 2015. Content is regularly updated so please refer to www.kidshealth.org.nz for the most up-to-date version
Content endorsed by the Paediatric Society of New Zealand