3 common (scary!) childhood illnesses that can often be treated at home

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Sick kid

because-I-said-so-REDEditor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series about children and the emergency room.

Fever, vomiting and diarrhea, a snotty cold: There are a few common illnesses that sometimes make parents panic unnecessarily, according to emergency room doctor Randle Likes. He’s been in practice for 13 years and has worked at Timpanogos Regional Hospital in Orem since 2012. In that time, he said he’s seen a lot of parents seek emergency treatment for illness that can often be cared for at home.

For otherwise healthy children who HAVE been immunized, here are Likes’ thoughts on three common childhood illnesses. Note that the following information is not intended to diagnose or treat any illness, so check with your provider any time you have a concern.

Fever

A high fever on its own isn’t necessarily cause for panic, said Likes. “If your child just has a fever and nothing else, the chance of them having something serious goes way, way, way down,” he said. A fever is a body’s way of fighting an infection. Parents who come to the ER are often needlessly fixated on high temperatures, said Likes.

“The temperature height itself no longer has any weight. Workups are purely based on how the child looks and other symptoms. You can have a child with a temperature of 100 who can be really sick, and I’ve seen kids with a temperature of 105 who are eating a bag of Cheetos,” Likes said.

What you can do at home: You can help a child with a fever at home by giving her appropriate pain relievers to keep her comfortable, and encouraging her to rest, said Likes.

What to watch for:

  • Any child with a fever under the age of 6 weeks needs medical care, said Likes.
  • An unimmunized child with a fever.
  • A child who has a fever and is acting strangely.
  • A child who has a fever accompanied by other symptoms, such as vomiting or shortness or breath.

Vomiting and diarrhea

The majority of the time, vomiting, diarrhea, or both are caused by a viral illness, said Likes. Parents often bring young children to the emergency room thinking they will need IV fluids, but the American Academy of Pediatrics actually suggests oral rehydration, said Likes.

In most cases, the illness will need to run its course. Especially for the “2-and-younger crowd,” most of the care given in the emergency room is supportive care, not medication, Like says.

What you can do at home: If your child has vomiting or diarrhea, don’t give him milk, said Likes. Instead, have him sip Pedialyte, or a sports drink like Gatorade diluted to half strength with water.  And be patient: Upset stomachs can typically only tolerate just a small amount of liquid at a time.

What to watch for:

  • Vomiting and diarrhea accompanied by a fever, especially if the symptoms persist more than 24 hours.
  • Children who are listless and dehydrated. Their mouths may be dry and lacking normal amounts of saliva. Their eyes may look sunken or dry, with the skin around the eyes retracting.
  • Persistent, continuing abdominal pain could signify something more serious.

Cold symptoms

“If a child has a runny nose and a cough, even if they have a little bit of low-grade fever, the vast majority of the time it’s a viral illness,” said Likes.

Many parents come to the emergency room seeking an antibiotic, which won’t help a viral illness, Likes says. Rather, taking too many antibiotics may make them resistant to antibiotics in the future, he said.

What you can do at home: Encourage fever medication if the child is miserable, and make sure she is getting rest and clear fluids. Cough medication isn’t recommended for young children, but you can use a humidifier at night to help make them more comfortable. School-aged children may benefit from a decongestant to help clear out their nose, Likes said.

What to watch for:

  • Children who are having difficulty breathing. Watch for wheezing, nose flaring, or the area between the ribs retracting as your child breathes.

The bottom line

As a parent, you know what normal behavior is for your child. If your child is having difficulty breathing, loses consciousness or has severe, persistent pain with one the above common childhood illnesses, seek immediate emergency care. In most other instances, check with your provider about how to best proceed.

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Elyssa Andrus has worked as a journalist for 14 years, most recently as the lifestyle editor at the Daily Herald newspaper in Provo. She is a contributor to the KSL-TV show "Studio 5" and is co-author of the book "Happy Homemaking" (Cedar Fort, 2012) with Natalie Hollingshead. She lives with her husband and four young children in Utah Valley.

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