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Young child blowing their nose during a cold

Kids & Viruses: A Pediatrician’s Practical Advice

By Kathryn Obregon, MD November 06, 2023 Posted in: Pediatrics

Go to the doctor, or not go to the doctor? That’s a question often debated by parents of young children. How do you know when that cold is bad enough to warrant a doctor visit, or that fever is something you can take care of on your own?

Unfortunately, especially when your children are young, you often just don’t know. My best advice is: 

  • If you are worried, have your child seen by your pediatrician. Don’t feel like you were wrong to bring your child in if you don’t get a prescription. 
  • It’s always okay to call your pediatrician’s office for advice. That’s why we’re here. 
  • If you want online information you can trust, go to HealthyChildren.org. This is the site I recommend because it’s from the American Academy of Pediatrics. 

Get Familiar with Childrens’ Illnesses

Most of the illnesses children get will have a viral cause. Because antibiotics do not work on most viruses, the best we can usually do is treat the symptoms.  

  • In their first winter months, children will get one to two viral illnesses a month, each lasting 10 to 14 days. That means you can have two or three snot-free days a month – especially if they are in daycare. If they’re not in daycare, children may get sick with that kind of frequency in kindergarten. 
  • Every illness is not from a virus. Some are bacterial, which most likely require treatment with an antibiotic. The only way to determine this is to have the child seen. 
  • Don’t be surprised if a fever bounces back. Children can have a fever at night, be fine in the morning, and then have a fever again later that day. It’s okay to call your pediatrician if you’re unsure. Providing advice and reassurance is what pediatricians do.  

Be Familiar with Your Child's Responses to Illnesses

It takes time to get to feel for how your child will respond to viruses. Some children are vocal, others barely complain. After the first few viruses, you start to understand how your child handles sickness, and you’ll have more confidence in your instincts. 

  • When infants are younger than two months old, it’s best to err on the side of caution because their immune systems are immature. Always go to the doctor if your infant is less than 2 months old and has a fever of 100.4 or higher. 
  • From 2 to 6 months can be tricky because infants’ immune systems are still immature. They are at risk for illnesses like pertussis and meningitis partly because they haven’t yet received their primary series of vaccines. 
  • Around age 1 or so, parents typically have a pretty good feel for how their children handle illnesses. They might, for example, give a child a day or two to resolve a low-grade fever before seeing their doctor.

Know the Warning Signs

New parents often worry they’ll miss a sign their child is seriously ill or injured. Symptoms that signal a medical emergency, according to HealthyChildren.org,1 include:

  • Strange or more withdrawn and less alert behavior
  • Unconsciousness or no response when you talk with your child
  • Rhythmic jerking (a seizure)
  • Increasing effort or trouble with breathing
  • Skin or lips that look blue, purple, or gray
  • Neck stiffness with fever
  • Increasing or severe persistent pain
  • A cut that is large, deep, or to the head, chest, or abdomen
  • Bleeding that does not stop after applying pressure for 5 minutes
  • A burn that is large or involves the hands, feet, groin, chest, or face
  • Any loss of consciousness, ongoing or worsening confusion, headache, or vomiting after a head injury​

Fortunately, most illnesses are minor, and parents learn to handle them with time. If you have questions, reach out to your pediatrician or primary care provider. We’re here to help!

Resources:

1.) https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/injuries-emergencies/Pages/When-Your-Child-Needs-Emergency-Medical-Services.aspx

Kathryn Obregon, MD
Kathryn Obregon, MD

Kathryn Obregon, MD is a Pediatrics provider with CHI St. Alexius Health.

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