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How to tell if your child is sick

9-minute read

If you think your child might have meningococcal disease, take them straight to the nearest hospital emergency department.

Key facts

  • If your child is eating, behaving and playing normally, they are probably not very sick.
  • Common symptoms of childhood illness include fever, vomiting, diarrhoea, pain, rash and cough.
  • If your child has a fever for more than 2 days or pain that doesn’t go away with medicine, or if they are passing less urine than normal or if they’re not drinking well, it’s a good idea to take them to the doctor.
  • If your child is under 3 months old and has a fever, they should see a doctor straight away, even if they don’t seem sick.
  • Parents know their child best, so if you’re worried, take them to the doctor.

How can I tell if my child is sick?

The best guide to your child’s state of health is their behaviour. If they are happy and active and if they are playing and eating as they usually do, they are probably not very sick.

A sick child may:

  • be unsettled or irritable
  • lose interest in playing or be unusually quiet and inactive
  • not want to eat
  • feel hot to touch
  • look tired, flushed or pale
  • shiver or complain of feeling cold

What symptoms should I look out for?

Fever

A fever is a temperature over 38 degrees Celsius.

Most of the time, fever itself is not harmful. It’s a sign that your child’s body is fighting an infection. How high the fever is doesn’t tell you how serious the infection is.

However, if your baby is under 3 months old and has a fever, take them to the doctor straight away, even if they have no signs of being sick. This is important because young babies are at higher risk of complications from infections, and the signs of a serious infection may not be very obvious.

Occasionally, a fever can cause a seizure in some children. Most of the time this isn’t harmful, but you should call an ambulance to take them to hospital to be checked.

If your child has had a seizure or becomes unwell very quickly, call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

Fever in babies and children

Find out what to do if your baby or child has a fever.

Drowsiness

If your child is feeling sick, they may be sleepy and not interested in playing. However, you should take them to the doctor straight away if:

  • they seem very drowsy and don’t wake up easily
  • they don’t have enough energy to cry loudly
  • they seem floppy when you pick them up

Breathing changes

If you notice any changes in your child’s breathing, take them to the doctor straight away. You might notice:

  • fast or noisy breathing
  • grunting sounds with each breath
  • the skin between their ribs sucking in with each breath

If your child has difficulty breathing or becomes unwell very quickly, call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

Dehydration

Dehydration is when your child doesn’t have enough fluid in their body. If your child has a fever or doesn’t want to drink, or if they are losing fluid through vomiting or diarrhoea, they could become dehydrated.

If your child is drinking less than half their usual amount, or if they are passing less urine than usual, they could be dehydrated and should see a doctor.

Other symptoms

A child who is feeling sick may also have:

  • vomiting
  • diarrhoea
  • pain
  • a cough
  • low appetite
  • tiredness
  • pale skin or a rash

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

How do I check my child’s temperature?

Checking body temperature by feeling your child’s forehead is not reliable. Always use a thermometer.

There are different types of thermometers and the results may vary depending on what you use. Good options are:

  • a digital or mercury thermometer, which is placed under the tongue or in the armpit. Don’t place it under the tongue in children younger than 4 years.
  • a digital ear thermometer, which can be used in children older than 3 months

Plastic tape or infrared thermometers used on the forehead are not reliable.

Some thermometers are more suitable for particular age groups, so follow the manufacturer's directions to get an accurate reading, or ask your doctor or child health nurse for advice.

How can I tell if my child has a serious illness?

Pay attention to how your child looks. They may have a serious illness if they:

  • are unusually drowsy or floppy
  • have pale, purplish or blueish skin
  • have difficulty breathing, are taking fast, shallow breaths or are grunting while breathing
  • are dehydrated
  • have severe pain that doesn’t go away
  • have a seizure
  • are vomiting repeatedly, or if the vomit has a green tinge or contains blood

It’s important to know the symptoms of meningococcal disease. This is a medical emergency and early diagnosis and treatment are vital. Think about meningitis if your child is unwell and has:

  • a bad headache
  • stiffness when moving their neck
  • a purple or red rash that does not turn skin-coloured when pressed
  • difficulty looking at light
  • a bulging fontanelle the soft spot on top of your baby’s head)
  • a high-pitched cry

When should I take my child to the doctor?

Your child should see a doctor straight away if they look unwell or have any symptoms of a serious illness. Parents know their children best — if you’re worried, that’s a good enough reason to take them to the doctor.

Your child should also see a doctor if they:

  • are less than 3 months old and have a fever
  • have had a fever for more than 2 days
  • have pain that doesn’t go away with pain-relieving medicine
  • have been drinking less than half their normal amount or are not feeding well
  • are not passing some urine every 6 hours
  • are refusing to use their arm or leg
  • have a swollen joint

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

When should I call an ambulance for my child?

You should call an ambulance if your child:

  • becomes unwell very quickly
  • is very drowsy or not responding to you
  • has difficulty breathing or their lips turn blue
  • stops breathing for short periods
  • has a seizure
  • has symptoms of meningococcal disease

How do I seek help?

If you think your child’s condition requires urgent medical attention, call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance, or take them to the emergency department of your nearest hospital.

If you’re unsure if your child’s illness is serious, call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 at any time to speak to a registered nurse (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria) for more information and advice.

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

Last reviewed: March 2023


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