Checking Your Child’s Symptoms Online

Before you take inaccurate (or alarming) results to heart, read this.

  • Adam Bluestein

Fever

Online worst case: Bacterial meningitis, lymphoma, leukemia.
The doctor says: Fevers are typically caused by a viral infection and are not serious. In toddlers and older children, temperatures of up to 104 degrees are usually not cause for worry.
How to treat: Give your child a proper dose of acetaminophen or ibuprofen to make him more comfortable; encourage fluid consumption.
When to worry: A child under three months of age with a temperature (taken rectally) of 100.5 degrees or higher should see a doctor, as should any older child who looks bluish in color, has difficulty breathing, or is reluctant to drink or eat for several days. Painful urination and bad-smelling urine can indicate a urinary-tract infection. A prolonged fever with tiredness lasting more than two weeks can be one symptom of cancer.

Headache

Online worst case: Blood clots, meningitis, an abscess, a brain tumor.
The doctor says: Frequent headaches (once a month) are common in teens. Most headaches in school-age children are tension-related. They may also be caused by lack of sleep, allergies, eyestrain, poor nutrition, or dehydration. If your family has a history of migraines, your child may be suffering from them.
How to treat: Give her the appropriate dose of acetaminophen or ibuprofen and make sure she drinks plenty of fluids. Resting in a dark room with a cool cloth on her forehead can help.
When to worry: If painful headaches wake your child at night; affect her coordination; are accompanied by nausea, vomiting, or a stiff neck; or get worse when she bends forward, coughs, or sneezes, they may signal pressure inside the head and a more dire diagnosis.
 

Ear Pain

Online worst case: A perforated eardrum, an object stuck in the ear.
The doctor says: This is probably a middle-ear infection, which is common in infants and young children and is often a side effect of colds. Call a doctor if the pain is persistent and lasts longer than 48 hours.
How to treat: Give your child acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain and to reduce any fever. A cold towel (some children prefer a warm compress) placed over the ear may also help relieve pain.
When to worry: If your child has poked something in his ear, it should be looked at quickly. See a doctor if a younger child has a high fever, cries in pain, or has a history of ear infections or has recently been treated for one.

Bloody Nose

Online worst case: Leukemia.
The doctor says: If it were leukemia, there would be additional clues, such as abnormal bruising. A far more likely cause is dry indoor air (nose picking can also aggravate the condition). It may look bad―even a small nose can produce what looks like a lot of blood―but there’s rarely any need for professional help.
How to treat: Apply consistent pressure to the fatty part of the nose while tilting the chin downward for 10 minutes to halt the bleeding. Use a humidifier and apply Vaseline, or use a saltwater spray inside the nose to help prevent recurrences.
When to worry: If applying pressure doesn’t do the trick, or if the nosebleeds are frequent despite your taking the above precautions, call a doctor.
 

Constipation

Online worst case: Hypothyroidism, diabetes.
The doctor says: Newborns are a separate case, but as long as your child’s stool is soft, going a few days between bowel movements usually isn’t a problem. Even true constipation is more uncomfortable than dangerous. Diet (not getting enough fiber, for example) and stress―about toilet training or not wanting to go to the bathroom at school―are probable causes of constipation.
How to treat: Peaches, plums, apricots, prunes, and mangoes should help get things going. Avoid apples and applesauce; they contain pectin, which may have a constipating effect.
When to worry: If an infant in his first month isn’t going once a day, see a doctor. And if constipation is worsening despite dietary changes, ask a doctor about other possible causes and about using a stool softener.

Abdominal Pain

Online worst case: Poisoning, appendicitis, a bite from a black-widow spider.
The doctor says: This is most commonly caused by constipation, the stomach flu, or a bad reaction to high-fructose corn syrup or lactose. Even sudden, severe abdominal pain―complete with writhing and crying―may just be gas pain, especially if it comes and goes.
How to treat: See the advice for constipation.
When to worry: See a doctor if your child is vomiting, has a fever or a distended abdomen, or doesn’t want to move, or if the pain is persistent and getting worse. Abdominal pain that lasts several days, even if it’s not severe, should also be evaluated; it might be a sign of a urinary-tract infection. Pain in the lower-right abdomen can signal appendicitis.
 

Pink or Pus-Filled Eyes

Online worst case: A scratched cornea.
The doctor says: Most cases of eye inflammation, or conjunctivitis, are caused by a virus. If your child’s eyes look pink but aren’t discharging pus, he may just have allergies or a virus that might clear up on its own.
How to treat: If his eyes are producing any discharge, you’ll need to see a doctor and, most likely, get a prescription for antibiotic eyedrops. (Most schools will insist that students be treated with antibiotics before returning to class.)
When to worry: If your child acts like he is in pain or if light bothers him, he may have a scratched cornea; get him to a doctor right away. He should also be evaluated if the tissues around his eyes are swollen and/or red, or if he is experiencing persistent pain and tearing.

Skin Rash

Online worst case: Chicken pox, Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
The doctor says: If the rash isn’t bothering your child, it probably shouldn’t bother you. If it doesn’t itch or hurt, it’s probably not serious. The roseola virus, a rash that breaks out after a fever, is a common illness in infants and toddlers that often goes away on its own.
How to treat: An over-the-counter cream that contains zinc oxide can help ease the pain of a rash.
When to worry: If your child has a fever or other symptoms accompanying the rash, bring him to a doctor; rashes are hard to diagnose over the phone and may indicate a serious and possibly infectious condition.