Mild infections are common during childhood. It’s not unusual for a child to see their doctor four times before they turn 1 because of bugs they’ve picked up. Most childhood infections can be managed safely at home, but parents often face a difficult decision if they suspect a more serious illness, about whether they need to get medical help.
Researchers have come to the aid of worried parents by coming up with a checklist of the symptoms we should take most seriously. The researchers call them “red flag” symptoms, and they’re the factors most likely to indicate a dangerous infection. The warning signs are:
- A blue or purplish tinge to the child’s skin, often around the fingernails or the mouth
- Rapid breathing
- Poor blood flow to the hands and feet. Your child’s hands or feet might feel much colder than usual, or their fingernails might take longer than a couple of seconds to turn pink again after being squeezed
- A rash caused by broken blood vessels under the skin. This kind of rash can be a symptom of meningitis. Some rashes will go away if you press them, but this kind won't. You can check by rolling a glass over the rash
- Drowsiness or loss of consciousness
- A seizure
- A fever measuring over 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
The researchers also say that, in cases where parents are very worried or a doctor has a hunch that something is seriously wrong, it’s a good idea to trust these instincts. Their study found that concern from parents or a doctor was linked to a higher chance of the child’s illness being serious.
What you need to know. If you’re ever worried about your child’s health, it’s always safest to get medical advice. Serious infections don’t always display the warning signs above, so don’t put off getting help just because your child doesn’t have these signs.
—Philip Wilson, patient editor, BMJ Group
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