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For Parents: Treat at Home or Call the Doctor?

When a child complains of a sore throat, stomachache, or a headache, a parent naturally worries. You want to do whatever you can to help your child feel better quickly. Sometimes, the illness seems severe enough to call your pediatrician or even take your child in for a checkup—just in case.

For parents of a newborn, first-time parents, or any anxious mom or dad, it may be hard to tell a true health threat that needs a doctor's attention from a frightening, yet simple, illness that doesn't require medical treatment. Most sniffles, sneezes, and stomachaches don't need medical attention. But how do you know when it's time to call the doctor?

When to call the doctor for babies

Guidelines for when you should have an illness evaluated by a health care provider vary, based on a child’s age. For babies, you may need to call your health care provider for a fever that wouldn't necessarily be worrisome in an older child. In babies, a fever may be a sign of a serious infection.

Here are some warning signs of fevers in infants that indicate you should call a health care provider rather than treat the illness on your own:

  • A fever of 100.4 degrees or higher in a baby 2 months old or younger (using a rectal thermometer)

  • A fever of 101 degrees or higher in a baby between 3 and 6 months old

  • A fever of 103 degrees or higher in a baby 6 months old or older

It's also important to pay attention to your baby's behavior and feeding patterns. If your baby shows any of these signs, it's best to call a health care provider rather than simply monitor the illness at home:

  • Difficulty feeding or sucking or no interest in feeding

  • Sleeping an unusual amount and being difficult to wake

  • Not moving much, or crying abnormally

  • Vomiting, coughing, or diarrhea

  • Changes in the baby's soft spot on the top of the head

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Rash on the skin

  • Sweating while eating

  • Gray or blue tint to the skin or extremely pale skin

When to call the doctor for older children

Once your baby passes his or her first birthday, fever becomes less of a concern. You probably don't need to see a health care provider unless a high fever lasts beyond 24 hours.

Behavior is another important sign that your little one doesn't need to visit the doctor. If your child plays, drinks, and eats as usual, even with a bit of a fever, it's probably just a mild illness that you can manage at home.

These are factors that indicate you should call your child's health care provider:

  • Hallucinations or delusions (seeing or hearing things that aren't really there)

  • Fever that occurs after the child has become overheated, such as being in a hot room or car

  • Fever in a child who has a weakened immune system from a health condition or medication

  • Seizure

  • Complaining of stiffness of the neck, a really bad headache, ear pain, or pain in the stomach

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Fever that goes away and returns over a period of days

  • Joints that appear swollen or are sore

If your child is feeling a little under the weather, but doesn't exhibit any of these warning signs, most likely plenty of rest, fluids, and cuddling will probably provide enough comfort. But if symptoms worsen or just drag on, or if your child isn't eating, playing, or drinking, it's worth a call to your health care provider. And remember to always follow your parenting instinct: If you feel something's wrong, you'll feel better getting reassurance from the doctor.