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How to tell if your child is sick

8-minute read

Key facts

  • 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.
  • If your child has a purple rash that does not fade with pressure, you should take your child to a doctor urgently.

How can I tell if my 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

What are some common symptoms?

Feverfever 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 in babies and children 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.

Rashrashes, 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.

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?

A body temperature above 38°C indicates fever. Checking body temperature by feeling your child’s forehead is not reliable. Always use a thermometer.

There are different types of thermometer and the results may vary depending on what you use:

  • digital thermometer, which is placed under the tongue or armpit. Oral readings (under the tongue) are usually the most accurate. It’s best to take oral temperatures in children aged over 4
  • digital ear thermometer, which are quick and easy but can be a little inaccurate
  • temporal artery thermometers, which scan the forehead to give a reading

Plastic tape 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.

Fever is a common symptom of many childhood illnesses and often it is nothing to worry about. However, always get an infants under 12 months checked if they have a fever. If your baby is under 3 months and has a fever, seek medical advice immediately, even if they have no signs of being sick.

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

You should seek help immediately if your child:

  • is unusually drowsy, floppy, listless or unresponsive
  • has changed colour and is pale, or has blueish or ashen skin, or has a purple or red rash that does not turn skin coloured (blanch) when pressed
  • has difficulty breathing, has fast, shallow breaths or is grunting while breathing
  • has a fever with a temperature above 38°C and is under 3 months of age
  • is refusing to drink, or is drinking less than half their normal fluid intake
  • is not passing urine or is wetting less than half of their normal amount of nappies
  • is having seizures
  • is vomiting repeatedly, or if the vomit has a green tinge
  • has a high-pitched, weak or continuous cry
  • has a bulging fontanelle, which is the soft spot on top of your baby’s head

When should I call an ambulance for my child?

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 take my child 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

What are the symptoms of meningitis?

Meningitis is a swelling of the membrane that surrounds the brain. It is commonly caused by infection.

Meningitis often begins with flu-like symptoms such as high temperature, chills, and cold hands or feet. The child may become drowsy or less alert, have a poor colour or be pale, and not drinking or passing urine. A stiff neck, a blotchy red or purple rash and breathing difficulties may also develop. A child with meningitis might have persistent headache or a sore neck, and bright lights might hurt their eyes.

Meningitis is a medical emergency and needs immediate treatment. It can kill within hours, so early diagnosis and treatment is vital. Do not wait for the purple rash to appear as that is a late stage of the disease. If you think your child might have meningitis, take them straight to the nearest hospital emergency department.

Vaccines against some types of viruses and bacteria that cause meningitis are available.

Here is more information on vaccinating your child against meningitis.

How do I seek help?

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

If you’re unsure of the seriousness of your child’s illness, call healthdirect to speak to a registered nurse on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria).

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

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

Last reviewed: March 2021

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