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How to tell if your child is sick

4-minute read

It is not always easy to know what to do if your child is sick. When should you keep them away from day care or preschool? When should they stay indoors or in bed if they have a cough? When should you take them to the doctor?

When should I call an ambulance?

In some situations, it is clear that you need to take your child to the doctor, for example after an accident or when an illness causes worrying symptoms such as difficulty with breathing.

You should call an ambulance if your child:

  • is very drowsy or unresponsive
  • has high-pitched, weak or continuous crying
  • has difficulty breathing or unusual breathing
  • has pale, mottled or blue skin
  • has a fit or seizure
  • has a bulging fontanelle (soft spot on top of their head)
  • has a rash that doesn’t fade after you press the child’s skin

When should I go to the emergency department?

You should go to the nearest hospital emergency department if your child:

  • is less than 3 months old and has a fever
  • is not feeding well
  • is vomiting frequently or vomiting green fluid or blood
  • has pain that pain relief medication doesn’t help
  • develops a lump or swelling
  • stops breathing for more than 15 seconds
  • has a severe headache
  • is complaining that light hurts their eyes
  • is drinking less than half the normal amount and not passing some urine every 6 hours

How to tell if your child is sick

Your best guide to your child’s state of health is their behaviour. Children who look, behave and act more or less normally are unlikely to be very ill.

A healthy child will generally have a good appetite and get a full night's sleep. They will also have plenty of energy and natural curiosity in their surroundings and generally act appropriately for their age.

The will also have plenty of energy and natural curiosity in their surroundings and generally act appropriately for their age.

A sick child may:

  • be fretful or listless, or irritable when disturbed
  • cry readily and not be easily comforted
  • lose interest in playing or is unusually quiet and inactive
  • be unusually quiet and inactive
  • not want to eat
  • feel hot to touch
  • look tired and flushed or pale
  • complain of feeling cold

Common symptoms and when to see your doctor

Fever: Fever itself is not harmful. The infection causing the fever is often viral and needs rest and fluids, but sometimes it is bacterial and antibiotics are needed. A baby under 3 months with a fever over 38°C is an emergency and they should be taken to an emergency department straight away as the cause of the fever is often hard to find and other signs of illness may be difficult to detect.

Vomiting: Vomiting is a common reaction to bodily upsets, which may or may not be serious in the absence of other symptoms.

Diarrhoea: The loss of fluid through repeated watery poos can cause dehydration in young babies, which can be dangerous.

Pain: If your child has pain in the abdomen, throat, ears or muscles, or when passing urine, they need to see the doctor.

Rash: Rashes, which are very common in children, may be due to an infectious diseases such as a viral infection, or an allergic reaction to medicine or to something that they ate or touched. Try to find out the cause, which may require medical treatment.

Many rashes are due to minor infections and are not serious. If your child has a purple rash that does not fade with pressure, you should take your child to a doctor urgently.

Headache: If the headache lasts for a long time, or comes and goes, or your child has a stiff neck, they need to see the doctor.

Things to remember

  • If your child is eating, behaving, sleeping and playing normally, they are not likely to have much wrong with them.
  • If your child is fretful, listless, cranky, lethargic, hot, pale or flushed, it is a good idea to take them to the doctor.
  • The most common symptoms of childhood illness are fever, vomiting, diarrhoea, pain, rash, cough and headache. If your child has one or more of these symptoms, it is a good idea to take them to the doctor.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: March 2021

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The information is not a substitute for independent professional advice and should not be used as an alternative to professional health care. If you have a particular medical problem, please consult a healthcare professional.

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