Is My Baby Sick? Ear Infections, Fevers, Colds and Flu

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Baby with doctor's stethoscopeIt’s one of the worst feelings in the world: Your baby seems sick and you want to make him feel better. But how sick is he? Should you treat him at home? Call your doctor? Go to the emergency room?

At Choices Pregnancy Center, we want you to feel confident in your decisions for your child’s health. So we’ve gathered some of the best suggestions we could find into this post on upper-body illnesses and our next one on abdominal illnesses. For additional info, follow the links provided.

Know Your Child

Paying attention to your child when he’s feeling well helps you recognize when he’s not. Some of his symptoms may not require a doctor’s attention—but some should be attended to right away. Let’s take one set of symptoms at a time.

 Note: The following is not intended to diagnose illness. All information was checked against the website of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Since Choices Pregnancy Center is not a medical center, we recommend that you ask your doctor for the best medical advice for your particular situation.

Ear Infection

If your baby rubs or tugs at his ear(s) more than usual, and especially if he is also feverish, he may have an ear infection. Have his doctor look into his ears; it’s the only way to be sure.

Your doctor may not prescribe an antibiotic at first, giving the infection time to clear up on its own. But don’t hesitate to bring your baby back into the clinic if his symptoms either don’t go away or get worse. Giving your child infants’ Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Motrin (ibuprofen) may relieve ear pain and help him sleep.

Fever

An elevated temperature signals a problem which your child’s body is trying to fight off. A fever doesn’t necessarily mean your child needs a doctor’s immediate attention. Usually you can soothe a mild fever’s effects by giving your child a lukewarm bath, wiping him gently with a damp washcloth, removing clothing, and/or giving him a dose of infants’ Tylenol (acetaminophen).

When to call the doctor:

  • If the fever is “high.” The dangerous range for a fever depends on the child’s age:
    Younger than 3 months — 100.4 F
    From 3 – 6 months – 101 F
    From 6 months – 2 years — 103F
    2 yr old or older, it is probably not urgent to call the doctor if he acts normal and doesn’t seem dehydrated
  • If he shows signs of dehydration:
    o Fewer wet diapers
    o Eyes look sunken
    o Fontanel (soft spot on baby’s head) looks sunken
    o Skin bunches up when pinched gently
    o Mouth and tongue appear dry
    o No tears when crying
  • If your feverish child also has a headache, stiff neck, rash-like bruise or tiny red dots under the skin. This could be meningitis, which needs a doctor’s immediate attention.
  • If your child has these other symptoms

Common Cold

Children get colds as often as 6-8 times a year. Symptoms include a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, and coughing; sometimes a fever follows. They usually build for two to three days, peak for three to five, and then subside. Read this article from the American Academy of Pediatrics for treating colds at home.

A cold is usually caused by a virus, which simply needs to run its course over a week or so. You can reduce his congestion by running a humidifier in his room. As he sleeps, elevate his head to drain his sinuses by placing a book or pillow under that end of his mattress. (Do not place a pillow directly under a baby’s head.) Encourage him to drink fluids such as breast milk, formula, and/or an electrolyte solution like Pedialyte.

When to call the doctor:
• If your child is a newborn (younger than 2 months)
• If he has a high fever (see Fever section, above)

Flu

Influenza viruses typically cause higher fevers and more coughing than the common cold. They usually strike during October through March. You’ll probably notice your child is cranky, and lacks interest in his usual activities. Next will come the fever, followed by a stuffy or runny nose and a cough. (Notice that with a cold, coughing starts before the fever.)

Flu symptoms include:

  • Fever, chills, shaking
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sore throat, dry hacking cough
  • Headache, muscle aches
  • Fatigue

To help your child deal with the flu at home, see this article.

When to call the doctor:

  • If your child is under 5 years of age and you see any of the above flu symptoms (Young children are at risk for serious complications from flu, like pneumonia.)
  • If your child is under 12 months old and
    o Has a “high” fever (see Fever section, above)
    o Has had a fever for more than 24 hours
    o Develops a cough that is not improving after a week
  • If flu symptoms haven’t improved after 5 days

Immediately call 911 (emergency services) if your baby shows any of these symptoms:

  • Fast or difficult breathing (You may notice the skin pulling in between his collar bones or his tummy pushing forward when he breathes)
  • Bluish or gray skin color, especially on lips
  • Dehydration (see signs of dehydration, above)
  • Severe or persistent vomiting
  • Lethargy; doesn’t wake up readily, doesn’t interact with you
  • Unusual irritability, to the point of not wanting to be held
  • Flu-like symptoms that get better but then return with fever and a worse cough
  • Flu symptoms plus a pre-existing condition of the heart or lungs.

If In Doubt Check It Out

The younger your child, the more dangerous illness can be. Whenever you are concerned about unusual behavior or symptoms that seem to be getting worse, call your doctor to help you decide how to take care of your child.

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Additional helpful links:
What To Do When Baby Gets Sick
Twelve Kids’ Symptoms You Should Never Ignore