Watching your child struggle through an illness—no matter if it’s the sniffles or the flu—can make you feel helpless. As you patiently watch for signs of improvement, that dreaded question pops into your head: “Is it turning into something more serious?”
Many colds that children get are viral infections which do not require antibiotics. The body will fight the virus during those unpleasant few days, their symptoms will pass and life will return to normal. But, while this is true for the majority of infections, sometimes they can turn into something more serious.
What does a doctor mean by “more serious”?
First, “more serious” can mean that the symptoms of the infection have worsened to the point where your child needs additional supportive therapies:
When a child is ill, a lack of appetite is expected and okay for a few days or so. But a child that is refusing to drink is very concerning. Dehydration may also happen if your child has a stomach bug and IS drinking fluids – but cannot keep anything down due to frequent vomiting or diarrhea.
Increased difficulty in breathing
It’s normal for your child to breathe a little bit faster when their nose is congested or their fever is high. However, if your child is breathing in hard despite nasal suctioning to remove mucus, fever control and—if needed—being given their asthma medication, then a medical provider should be contacted.
Signs of breathing difficulties include being able to see the spaces in between their ribs during their deep breaths, flared nostrils when breathing or being unable to eat, drink or talk very well due to their breathing difficulties. These are signs that your child needs extra help!
Sometimes a medical provider will say that an illness has turned into something “more serious” when a secondary infection has occurred. For example, a cold can turn into pneumonia.
Keep an eye on fevers that last longer than 5 days—a fever is a body temperature greater than 100.4 degrees fahrenheit. Fevers greater than 102.2 degrees fahrenheit can also be a sign of something more serious in children under 3 years old.
Worsening cough and sinus symptoms
If your child has worsening cough and sinus symptoms for more than 10 days, a cold that was getting better and then suddenly gets worse, or very severe cold symptoms, you should contact a medical provider.
Changes in mental alertness
Any changes in mental status—like if your child acts extremely sleepy or unable to play—are symptoms to look out for that should be brought to the attention of your healthcare provider. For infants, increased fussiness may be a sign that they are in pain, and so it should also be evaluated.
If you have any questions or concerns about your child’s health, you should always contact your primary care provider just to be safe.
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Yours in health and family,
Dr. Dao, Dr. Takemoto and the NightLight team