Serious childhood illnesses: what to do

Babies and young children with the signs and symptoms listed in this article are at risk of serious illnesses.

If you notice any of the problems listed below, seek medical attention as soon as possible. You know your child best, so trust your instincts if your child doesn’t seem well.

The quickest way to get immediate medical attention is to either call 000 and ask for an ambulance, or take your child to the emergency department at your nearest hospital.

When to call an ambulance for childhood illnesses

If you notice any of the following signs and symptoms, call 000 and ask for an ambulance:

  • drowsiness or unresponsiveness
  • high-pitched, weak or continuous crying
  • difficulty breathing or unusual breathing
  • pale, blotchy or blue skin
  • fits or seizures
  • a rash that doesn’t fade when you press your child’s skin.

There’s more information about these signs and symptoms below.

Drowsiness and unresponsiveness
It’s normal for your child to be sleepy sometimes – for example, after a feed. But if your child seems sleepier than usual, this can be a sign of serious childhood illnesses.

If you can’t wake your child even when you try really hard many times, get help immediately.

Unresponsiveness can be a sign of several serious childhood illnesses and conditions, including low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia) or a life-threatening brain infection (meningitis).

High-pitched, weak or continuous crying
All babies and young children cry. But if your child is crying in an unusual way, the crying doesn’t stop, and you have trouble settling your child, you should be concerned.

Difficulty breathing or unusual breathing
If your child is having difficulty breathing, you might notice that:

  • she has to breathe much harder to get air into her lungs
  • she has a persistent cough
  • the muscles between her ribs pull in when she tries to breathe
  • she can’t make any conversation or sounds.

In severe cases, your child might look very tired and blue. He might be quiet or make a grunting noise with each breath.

These breathing symptoms might be caused by conditions like a chest infection (pneumonia) or severe asthma.

Pale, blotchy or blue skin
Pale, blotchy or blue skin might be caused by poor blood circulation or low levels of oxygen in the body, both of which can happen in serious childhood illnesses.

Convulsions or seizures
If your child is having a convulsion or seizure, her eyes might roll backwards. She might be unresponsive, shake violently in all limbs for a short time, and have shallow or unusual breathing.

Once the convulsion has stopped, roll your child onto his side on a soft surface, keeping his top leg bent. This is the recovery position. Don’t put anything (including your fingers) in your child’s mouth during this time. This might block your child’s breathing.

Rash (positive glass test)
Skin spots or blotches that don’t fade when you press a glass firmly against your child’s skin can be an early sign of a life-threatening meningococcal infection.

When to go to the hospital emergency department for childhood illnesses

If you notice any of the following signs and symptoms, take your child straight to the nearest emergency department:

  • fever in babies less than three months old
  • less wee than usual
  • poor feeding
  • frequent vomiting

There is more information about these signs and symptoms below.

Fever or high temperature above 38°C
A fever is a temperature higher than 38°C. It’s the body’s normal way of fighting infections. Most children with a fever don’t have a serious illness. But in some cases, a fever can be a sign of a more serious infection.

If your baby is under three months and develops a fever, a doctor needs to see her immediately. This is because it’s harder to tell whether children in this age group have serious underlying illnesses.

But if your child is over three months and doesn’t show other signs of serious illness, you could also take your child to the GP if you can get an appointment on the same day.

Feeling your child’s skin temperature by putting your hand to his forehead isn’t a reliable way of diagnosing a fever. The best way to check your child’s temperature is by using a thermometer.

Less wee than usual
An early sign of many serious illnesses is fewer wet nappies than usual – that is, fewer than half the number of wet nappies your child usually has each day. It could mean your child is dehydrated.

Poor feeding
If your child isn’t feeding well or has no interest in feeding, this could be an early sign of childhood illness.

Frequent vomiting
Vomiting is a normal way for the body to get rid of something it doesn’t want. It can also be a sign of illness or infection.

Vomiting that doesn’t stop can cause dehydration and dangerous imbalances in the body’s chemical system.

Go to an emergency department if your child can’t eat or drink anything and is still vomiting after:

  • 12 hours for children under two years
  • 24 hours for children over two years.

If you need urgent medical advice or information, you can phone Healthdirect on 1800 022 222. This helpline is available 24 hours a day.

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