Need to talk? Call 1800 882 436.
It's a free call with a maternal child health nurse. *call charges may apply from your mobile

Is it an emergency? Dial 000
If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately.

beginning of content

Recognising serious illness in children

4-minute read

Most childhood illnesses are minor. But it can be difficult to know if your child is seriously ill.

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

For more information on the symptoms of serious illnesses visit the healthdirect Symptom Checker.

How to check your 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.

For more information on taking a child’s temperature, visit the Raising Children Network website.

Diabetes

Diabetes is a long-term condition characterised by very high blood sugar levels. In children, diabetes is usually caused by a lack of insulin.

Children with diabetes might pass a lot of urine. This can result in bed-wetting during the night. The urine may also smell sweet due to blood sugar being lost through the urine.

Other signs of diabetes in children include tiredness, weight loss, abdominal pain and increased hunger and thirst.

If diabetes is left untreated, children with diabetes can feel very tired, have a sweet, fruity, alcohol-like smell on their breath, vomit or have seizures.

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 to 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).

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

Last reviewed: January 2021


Back To Top

Call us and speak to a Maternal Child Health Nurse for personal advice and guidance.

Need further advice or guidance from our maternal child health nurses?

Healthdirect Australia acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to the Traditional Owners and to Elders both past and present.

This information is for your general information and use only and is not intended to be used as medical advice and should not be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any medical condition, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes.

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.

Except as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, this publication or any part of it may not be reproduced, altered, adapted, stored and/or distributed in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of Healthdirect Australia.