Is my child sick?

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Is my child very sick?

Healthy young children have on average 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?

Depending on the circumstances you may decide to:

  • 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. (See Emergencies - Dialling 111 in New Zealand).


The following is a list of some of the symptoms that mean your child has a significant health problem.

See a doctor if your child:

  • has an unusual colour – they are very pale or have blue tongue and lips
  • has a worrying rash especially one that does not go away when you press on it (see a photo of a meningococcal rash)
  • is very sleepy or drowsy
  • 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 passing urine
  • passes urine that is very dark or has blood in it
  • vomits a lot – and cannot keep sips of replacement drinks down
  • vomits yellow-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 stools or blood in the bowel motions
  • has frequent and watery bowel motions (diarrhoea)
  • has a fever that lasts for more than two days
  • is in pain
  • is not interested in surroundings (lethargic) 
  • is getting sicker or is not improving after two days

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 one of the above symptoms. You should trust your instinct.

Where to go for more information

On this website Meningococcal disease

This website tool, for babies under six months old, might help guide you as to whether you need to take your baby to a doctor. The website has been designed by a neonatal doctor. The other areas of this website (NICU Tools) are aimed at health professionals.

Healthline and PlunketLine

  • ring PlunketLine on 0800 933 922 if you have child health and parenting questions or queries. For example, if you have questions about such issues as parenting, crying, sleeping, your child's growth, development, behaviour, immunisation, breastfeeding, nutrition, oral health, safety or want to know more about the Well Child / Tamariki Ora programme
  • call Healthline on 0800 611 116 if you need advice about a child of any age who is unwell or hurt, or has any symptoms of sickness. Healthline provides a full range of telephone triage and health advice for children (and adults)
  • both services are available 24 hours and are free to callers throughout New Zealand, including from a mobile phone


This page last reviewed 13 November 2012
© Paediatric Society of New Zealand and Starship Foundation 2005 – 2015
Printed on 29 January 2015. Content is regularly updated so please refer to for the most up-to-date version
Content endorsed by the Paediatric Society of New Zealand