How To Treat a Sick Toddler: When To See a Doctor

All children deserve to have access to high-quality healthcare and this includes toddlers. Often, parents are concerned about toddler illnesses because they cannot adequately explain what they are feeling or what they think is wrong.

Sometimes, the only sign that a toddler might be ill could be a lack of energy, a lack of appetite, or trouble sleeping. In some cases, toddlers might just be fussy.

In other cases, toddlers could be seriously ill. How can parents tell the difference? Furthermore, when should parents take their toddler to see the doctor?

These are a few common childhood illnesses that need to be reviewed. Then, parents can learn when to relax and when to be concerned.

A Sore Throat

Pediatrician examines toddler for sore throat

Sore throats are among the most common childhood illnesses and they can arise in toddlers as well. First, there are two different reasons why a toddler might have a sore throat. These include:

  • Viral Infections: The vast majority of sore throats, across all age ranges, are caused by viral infections. Viral infections do not need antibiotics. This includes viral sore throats. Your toddler should get better in seven to ten days with adequate rest and hydration.
  • Bacterial Infections: Also called strep throat, this is a sore that that is caused by the streptococcus bacteria. There is no way to diagnose bacterial strep by looking at the throat. This has to be done with a lab test. Importantly, babies and toddlers rarely get bacterial strep throat. This is more likely if they go to daycare or if there is another person in the house with this illness. This type of strep requires antibiotics treatment.

When To See a Doctor: If your toddler is running a fever that has persisted for two days, is refusing to stop crying, or is becoming dehydrated due to a refusal to drink anything, then you need to take your toddler to see a doctor.

Ear Pain

When to see a doctor if your toddler has ear pain

Of course, toddlers are going to develop ear pain. Ear infections are common throughout childhood due to their anatomy. Ear pain can have several causes. These include:

  • Traditional ear infections, where are referred to as otitis media
  • Swimmer’s ear, which is an infection of the outside of the ear (and is called otitis externa)
  • Tooth pain, irritating nerves that radiate up to the ear
  • Sinus pressure due to a cold or a sinus infection

If your child has otitis media or otitis externa, then this could require antibiotic treatment. The preferred antibiotic for otitis media is Amoxicillin, which is the pink bubble gum medicine. If your child has a penicillin allergy, then there are alternatives. 

Some cases of otitis media are caused by viruses and might not require antibiotics. It is a good idea to see a pediatrician so that your child’s ear can be thoroughly examined. At home, you can treat this illness with lots of rest, hydration, and Tylenol or Motrin for a fever. 

When To See a DoctorIf you notice that your child is tugging on his or her ear, this is a common sign of ear pain. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to see a doctor. If your child continues to pull on his or her ear for more than a few days, starts crying because the ear “hurts so bad,” or is running a fever, then you need to take your child to see a doctor.

Respiratory Illness

Toddler coughing pain

Respiratory illnesses are the bane of many parents’ existences during the winter. They also drive many pediatricians crazy as well! It is important to note that there are many causes of respiratory illnesses. Some important ones to review include:

  • A Cough: A cough alone is usually caused by a routine virus that has infected the upper respiratory tract. If there is nothing coming up, then parents do not need to worry that much unless the cough is so bad that children cannot eat or drink. Because most coughs are caused by viruses, this will pass on its own. It will usually run its course in about a week.
  • A Cough With Productive Mucus: Next, it is important to review coughs that take place with mucus production. If there is clear mucus coming from the nasal passages, this could be routine allergies. It might not be a virus at all. Importantly allergies do not cause a fever. If there is a fever present, then it is probably a viral illness. If the mucus looks “purulent” in nature, meaning it is bright green or yellow, then this could require antibiotics. If productive mucus persists for three days with a fever, then it is time to see a doctor.
  • A Cough With Wheezing: If parents hear their toddler wheezing, this is going to raise some alarm bells. This is appropriate. A wheeze is going to sound “polyphonic” in nature, meaning it will sound like someone is strumming multiple notes at the same time. This is because your toddler has something called bronchiolitis. This is inflammation of the lower airways, which is causing them to swell. This is almost always caused by viruses, which do not require antibiotics; however, you still need to see a doctor. Many cases of bronchiolitis are caused by RSV, which is a virus. Your child’s breathing problems could swell to the point of requiring supplemental oxygen, which is serious.

When To See a Doctor: If you find that your child cannot eat or drink, is having trouble breathing, or has a fever for more than two days, it is time to see a doctor. At home, you can treat respiratory illnesses with a humidifier, warm washcloths, a bulb sucker (that your pediatrician can provide you), and plenty of hydration.

Common Toddler Illnesses

These are a few of the most common toddler illnesses. There is plenty that you can do at home; however, you also need to know when to see a doctor.

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David R earned his undergraduate degree in Biochemistry from Washington University in St Louis before earning his medical degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. When he isn't treating patients he enjoys playing the piano, participating in sports, and traveling the world.

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