Caring for a sick child

All children get ill from time to time and every parent has watched anxiously as their normally cheerful child becomes sad and listless. Most infections pass quickly and leave children better able to resist them in the future.

If your child is feeling unwell

Sometimes, if the illness or accident is serious, immediate, and occasionally long-term, help is needed.

If your child is feeling unwell:

  • it is always better to be safe than sorry – if you are ever in doubt about your child’s health, talk to a health professional
  • many childhood illnesses get better by themselves and can easily be treated at home – some common medicines, however, such as paracetamol and ibuprofen are not safe for all children, speak to your pharmacist for more information
  • be wary of antibiotics, as they only work against bacteria – most common childhood illnesses are caused by viruses and antibiotics will not help
  • serious childhood illnesses are rare, but if you think your child might be affected, always trust your instincts and get medical help right away
  • it is a good idea to learn some basic first aid skills for when your child suffers minor cuts and scrapes
  • be prepared to deal with an emergency – if you know what you are going to do it will help you to stay calm and give your child the best help you can

When to seek urgent medical help

It is very difficult to describe exactly when you should take your child to an emergency department or call an ambulance for them. You may have to rely on your own instincts, but as a rough guide you should consider the following.

You should call an ambulance if your child:

Knowing when your child is ill

Often there is no mistaking when a child is ill, but sometimes it can be hard to tell. They may be listless, hot and miserable one minute and running around happily the next.

There are some things you should consider if you are worried your child might be ill:

  • look out for physical signs that they may not be well, such as vomiting, high temperature, coughing or unusual behaviour like crying, irritability, refusing food and drink or being listless and drowsy
  • trust your instincts – you know your child better than anyone and  will recognise behaviour that is unusual or worrying
  • if you are unsure if your child is sick, or if their symptoms do not improve, contact your GP or speak to your health visitor – if you cannot get in contact with your GP or GP out-of-hours service, contact your local accident and emergency department

The following symptoms should always be treated as serious:

  • your baby seems floppy when you pick them up
  • your baby will not drink for more than eight hours – taking food is less important
  • a bulging fontanelle (the soft spot on the top of a baby’s head)
  • weak, high pitched and continuous crying
  • repeated vomiting or vomiting green bile
  • a temperature over 38 degrees if they are less than three months old or over 39 degrees if they are three to six months old
  • a high temperature but cold feet or hands
  • your baby has a fit (also called convulsions or a seizure, the three words mean the same thing)
  • their skin turns blue, mottled or very pale
  • difficulty breathing, breathing fast or grunting while breathing, or working hard to breathe
  • a stiff neck
  • your child is unusually drowsy or hard to wake, or they don’t seem to know you
  • your child is unable to stay awake after being roused
  • a spotty purple rash anywhere on a child’s body – this could be a sign of meningitis

Looking after a sick child

Caring for a sick child can be difficult and even upsetting, especially if they are experiencing any pain or discomfort. There are a few things you can do, however, to help them recover and to feel better in the meantime;

  • it’s important to listen to your child when they are sick – if they say they don’t need to be in bed, they probably don’t and might feel less lonely if they are on a sofa or armchair closer to you
  • if the room is too warm it will probably make them feel worse- try to keep the room airy without being draughty
  • a sick child will need plenty of fluids – don’t worry about food for the first day or so unless they want it
  • try to keep them company with some quiet games and stories
  • sick children need plenty of rest, so encourage them to doze off whenever they need to – reading them a quiet story might help
  • never fall asleep on a sofa with a sick child – even though you are both likely to be exhausted, this increases the risk of cot death

Getting expert help

Most general practices are very supportive of parents with small children. Many GPs will fit babies into surgeries without an appointment, or see them at the beginning of surgery hours, and many doctors will give advice over the phone.

Even so, if you are worried about a problem that will not go away, it is right that you keep going back or contacting your GP.

Your health visitor, practice nurse, health practitioner and pharmacist can also all give you advice and help you to decide if your child is unwell. Typically a GP will treat your child and prescribe medicines, though increasingly health visitors, nurses and pharmacists can also diagnose illnesses and prescribe medicines for your child as well.

If you think your child may be ill, it’s usually best to contact your local pharmacy first, unless your child is displaying the potentially serious symptoms listed above. If your pharmacist can’t help, then you should contact your GP or out-of-hours GP service.

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