Advise Me

Does Your Child Need Medical Care or Can You Treat Them at Home?

As a parent, you can try to prepare for just about everything you think you’ll face with your child. But figuring out whether to treat your child at home or seek medical treatment can be one of the most challenging decisions you’ll make. And most kids will have their share of fevers, rashes, cuts, bruises, colds and stomachaches. That means you’ll likely face this decision more than once.

We caught up with Aaron Leetch, MD, a pediatric emergency medicine specialist with Banner Children's, to learn more about how to sort out injuries and illnesses in your child. 

When can you treat your child at home?

Many common childhood illnesses can be watched and treated at home. Simple cases of cough, sore throat, runny nose, vomiting, diarrhea and fever can be treated with plenty of fluids and over-the-counter medications appropriate for their age. “As long as they are interactive, breathing easily and drinking fluids, they can often be monitored at home for changes,” Dr. Leetch said.

He pointed out that many parents worry about cough or fever, but those symptoms are generally good. Cough helps clear the phlegm and mucus out of the lungs to prevent pneumonia. And the fever is part of the way the body responds to infection. It “sounds the alarm” that tells the immune system to jump into action. But fever can be a sign of something serious in newborns, so contact your pediatrician or take your baby to the emergency department for a fever of 100.4 degrees F or higher.

Minor injuries such as cuts that stop bleeding and bruises can also usually be treated at home.

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When should you call your child’s doctor?

In general, you should call your pediatrician’s office if you are concerned your child’s illness or injury is not progressing the way you expect it to go. “If your child is interactive, breathing easily and drinking fluids but you still have concerns, making an appointment is almost always more convenient and cheaper than an emergency department visit,” Dr. Leetch said.

You can often talk to a nurse about your child’s symptoms, and the nurse may suggest at-home treatments, recommend that you come in for an appointment, or advise you to go to the emergency department. You might want to call if your child has:

  • A sore throat or cough that you find concerning
  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
  • Ear or sinus pain
  • Sprains or strains

Since children don’t always get sick or hurt during business hours, many offices have a doctor or nurse on call in the evenings, at night and on weekends. Your health insurance company may also offer a nurse line.

If your child has a cough or fever, the cause is more important than the symptoms. Your pediatrician or emergency physician can help determine if the source of the cough or fever is dangerous. If it’s not, they can give you some tips to make the symptoms more manageable while your child’s immune system fights the infection. 

Schedule an appointment with a pediatrician.

When should you go to the emergency department?

You’ll want to take your child for care immediately if your child has serious symptoms that need care or symptoms that could take a turn for the worse quickly. Call 911 or go to the emergency department if they:

  • Aren’t interactive 
  • Lose consciousness
  • Aren’t drinking fluids 
  • Have heavy, difficult breathing 
  • Faint or pass out
  • Have a severe allergic reaction
  • Are excessively sleepy or confused
  • Show signs of dehydration
  • Hit their head and then vomit, pass out or seem confused
  • Cough or throw up blood
  • Have a seizure for the first time or a seizure that lasts more than five minutes
  • Have a cut that won’t stop bleeding or a broken bone that protrudes through the skin
  • Have an injury with tingling or numbness

In these cases, your child’s condition might worsen, and they might need interventions that can’t wait. “Also, the emergency department may have treatment options that your pediatrician and you at home cannot provide,” Dr. Leetch said.

Find the Banner Health emergency department closest to you.

The bottom line

It can be tough to figure out whether you should treat your child at home or seek medical care. If you’re not sure if you should wait or get care for your child right away, reach out to your pediatrician or health care provider.

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