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When to call the doctor: 7 dangerous symptoms in children

When parents notice these symptoms in children, they should contact their pediatrician for advice and care.
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/ Source: TODAY

Many parents hear cautionary tales of how an innocent symptom somehow turns life-threatening. And many might wonder when they should worry about dilated pupils, fever or bruising and when they can comfortably treat symptoms at home.

The experts share what childhood symptoms are potentially dangerous and might require a call to the pediatrician or a visit to the emergency room.

High fever

While children often spike fevers when they’re battling a cold or teething, fevers can reach dangerous levels. If a child has a fever of 102 or above, parents need to consider help.

“This is a reason to call their pediatrician right away — without any delay,” Dr. Lana Gagin, a pediatrician at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, told TODAY Parents. “Also if the elevated temperature lasts four or five days long, regardless of the child’s age, parents also need to call the doctor’s office.”

Difficulty breathing

Colds and infections cause breathing problems for children. While struggling to breathe a bit with congestion is normal, the experts agree that if children experience shortness of breath or labored breathing parents should talk to a pediatrician.

“If they’re panting faster, harder, that’s always a sign to get them checked out,” Dr. Sarah Bode, medical director of Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s school based health and mobile clinics, told TODAY Parents.

Dilated pupils

Kids fall. A lot. Sometimes they knock their head on the floor, an end table, the stairs or the deck and parents might wonder if their children simply thumped their head or if they might have a concussion. Should parents look for dilated pupils?

“If you had pupils that were not reacting or were dilated or different sizes that’s really a significant worrisome sign,” Bode said.

Though, she urges concerned parents not to wait until pupils dilate to seek help. Dilated pupils indicate brain swelling, which wouldn’t happen with just a mild or moderate concussion. Instead parents should look for loss of consciousness after impact, headache, dizziness, vomiting, or behaving in a confused way or unusual way. If any of these occur they should visit their doctor.

Bruising in unusual places

Kids get injured and their skin often turns black and blue. While they can look bad, bruises are often normal. Yet, if parents notice bruises on their children’s torsos or places people usually do not bruise, they should talk to their pediatrician.

“If you have a child developing large bruises that are in places where they wouldn't typically be running into things — so on the middle of their backs, their chests … and you're not sure where it came from, that might be something you'd want to get checked out,” Bode said.

Also if they experience large bruises frequently, parents should talk to their pediatricians just to be safe.

Vomiting with rash or hives

When it comes to children, vomit happens. But if they start throwing up and developing a rash or hives it could be an indication that they have a more serious illness.

“If the vomiting is accompanied by other changes that is when parents need to think about going to the doctor or going to the emergency room,” Bode said. “Some of the first signs and symptoms of a food allergy would be stomach pain and vomiting that's coming out of nowhere and then accompanied by either some sort of facial swelling, itching or hives.”

No tears or dry diapers

Stomach bugs that cause vomiting and diarrhea occur all too often and can most often be treated at home with some TLC, bland foods and clear fluids. Sometimes a child just can’t stay hydrated. If they cry but there are no tears or they have fewer than six wet diapers in a 24 hours, parents might want to take their children to the doctor or emergency room for intravenous fluids to rehydrate them.

“If they notice any signs of dehydration parents need to keep the pediatrician informed,” Gagin said.


Parents who have a baby who refuses to eat or a child who isn’t moving at all should talk to their pediatrician. Children who are so listless might have another more concerning ailment.

“See how different your child’s behavior is from his or her normal self,” Gagin said. “If all of a sudden the child is just laying down and is not interested and doing anything … you should pick up the phone and talk to the pediatrician.”