My child is sick: When should I call the doctor?

It’s late at night and your child is sick. Do you call your doctor? Do you wait until the morning? Here are some tips to help you know when to pick up the phone.

It’s the middle of the night, and your child seems agitated and isn’t feeling well. You think: “My child is sick. Do I call the doctor? Do I wait until the morning?” Many new and veteran parents will face a situation like this as their child grows. Here are some guidelines to follow to help you know when to call your pediatrician, day or night.

First things first: You’re not bothering your pediatrician

Don’t worry if it’s late at night or you’re worried that it’s a silly question.

“If you’re concerned your child is sick, I think most pediatricians would want to help lessen a child’s discomfort and get them the right care sooner rather than later,” said Taunya Jasper, M.D., pediatrician with Norton Children’s Medical Group – Frankfort. “If you wait to call, your child’s symptoms could worsen.”

Plus, it’s now more common for pediatrician practices to have after-hours phone lines for those late-night calls. Norton Children’s Medical Group, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine, has an after-hours phone line available for current patient families to get their questions answered 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Our licensed nurses answering the phone can guide parents to the correct care, day or night. They can provide guidance on managing symptoms, whether you need to come into the pediatrician’s office the next day or go straight to the emergency department.

“We want our families to call when they have questions or if they’re second-guessing what they should do about a child’s symptoms,” Dr. Jasper said. “Getting an answer from a trusted health care provider may help ease any worries you have and get your child the care they need faster.”

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What symptoms should I call for?

You may want to consider calling your pediatrician about symptoms including:

  • Fever: A fever is defined as a temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. Parents should call their pediatrician immediately when any child under the age of 3 months has any fever, as it’s considered a medical emergency. For children older than 3 months, if your child is acting uncomfortable, fussy, has chills or aches, then they may feel better after their fever is treated. If you are uncomfortable with the way your child appears, or if the fever is rising/not responding to treatment, contact your pediatrician immediately.
  • Breathing issues: If your child is showing signs of a breathing issue, it could be the sign of something serious — potentially an asthma attack or ingestion of a foreign object. A health care professional can listen to your child’s breathing, and in many cases let you know if you should go directly to an emergency room. It also could be croup, when a child’s cough sounds like a bark.
  • Dehydration: Dehydration can come on quickly, especially if a child is experiencing diarrhea or vomiting. You should call your pediatrician’s office if your child hasn’t gone to the bathroom in six hours or refuses to drink liquids.
  • Head injury: Children can experience falls any time, day or night. Children could roll or fall out of bed. Call your pediatrician if your child loses consciousness or seems out of sorts.
  • Stomach issues: Severe stomach pain or the presence of green-colored bile in a child’s vomit (if they haven’t been eating green foods) should prompt you to give your pediatrician a call. Additionally, should you see blood in vomit or stool, you should call the pediatrician.

According to Dr. Jasper, it’s important for parents to trust their instincts, but a good rule of thumb is to pay attention to a child’s symptoms. Are they getting worse? Has your child’s disposition changed?

“Parents know their child best,” Dr. Jasper said. “If you have any concerns, day or night, you should call your pediatrician.”