When your family gets sick, what can you do before running to the ER or clinic?
When cold and flu season is in full gear, it’s helpful to know common things that can help us prevent and treat whatever is in town. Many of the viruses that run around each season don’t have specific treatments, but there are things that we can do at home to treat symptoms and keep people more comfortable. There are also things we can all do to prevent the spread to other family members or back into our community.
What can be done to feel better?
Remember that nothing can be done to treat most viruses. Our body’s immune system will take care of that, but we can do things that help us feel better during the illness.
It’s hard to make them better, but we can make them feel better
During the cold and flu season, it can seem like kids are sick every day for months because they catch one on top of the other. Some of these days they might simply have a runny nose, and those days can last most of the year in young kids.
It’s when they seem uncomfortable or distressed that we need to do more. Treat the symptoms that bother them.
Identify the symptoms that are concerning, such as difficulty breathing or dehydration, and seek treatment at your doctor’s office for those.
What about fever?
Notice I did not list fever as one of those symptoms.
Doctors don’t do anything special for fever in vaccinated children over 2 months of age.
Fever can accompany other symptoms that may be concerning, but it in itself is not the concern unless it is a newborn, unvaccinated child, or one with a chronic condition that you’ve been warned has increased risks.
Remember the goal is not to bring temperatures to normal, but to keep kids comfortable. If they’re in pain from sinus pressure, a headache, sore throat, body aches, or earaches, it is okay to give a pain reliever even with a normal temperature.
Get the mucus out
Suction your infant’s nose before feeding and before putting him down to sleep. This helps clear the mucus from the airway and makes breathing easier. Encourage nose blowing for those old enough to know how to blow.
Encourage your family members over 6 months of age to drink more water than normal when sick. Kids often won’t eat well when they’re sick. That’s okay. It is important that they drink well though so they can stay hydrated.
Young infants should not drink water, but you can encourage more of their milk or formula when they have cough and colds.
If your child has vomiting or diarrhea, avoid cow’s milk products. These often lead to more vomiting. Breast milk can be offered in small amounts frequently to infants who are breastfeeding. Electrolyte solutions (with sugars and salts) can be given to infants and children for hydration.
DO NOT let anyone smoke around your child or in your home. Smoke can make the wheezing and coughing worse, even if done in a separate room in the home.
Smoke residue on hair and clothing can cause irritation to your child’s airways. I can usually identify smokers or people who spend time with smokers when they’re in my clinic. (Thankfully that isn’t often.) It isn’t unusual for me to start coughing when they’re in a clinic room with me. If you must smoke, go outside and wear a jacket that can be removed to minimize what is on your shirt when you go inside and hold your baby.
I’ve even started coughing when around someone who was vaping. I know people claim that the vapor is safe around others, but my lungs don’t like it. Keep it away from your kids. Talk to your kids about the risks of vaping so they don’t start the habit.
Encourage those who are sick to get extra rest. We often sleep poorly at night and need daytime naps to get enough sleep when we’re sick.
A cool mist vaporizer or humidifier can help your child breathe easier. Change the water every day. Clean the machine per the manufacturer recommendations.
It just isn’t possible to keep kids from being contagious when they have a virus. They love to touch everything and share germs, so keep them home until they’re well enough to return to normal daily activities.
Our health department now recommends that everyone with influenza stays home for 7 days following the start of symptoms.
You can return to work, school, and activities with other illnesses when the fever is gone (without using fever reducers) for 24 hours, there’s no vomiting or diarrhea, and you’re generally feeling well enough to return. If not, stay home and rest or visit your doctor.
Cover the cough!
Teach kids to sneeze and cough into their elbow or a tissue. Wash hands after handling tissues.
Wash, wash, wash
Good handwashing can help decrease the spread of viruses.
Wash hands often. If soap and water isn’t available, use hand sanitizer. The more things you touch, the more often you should wash.
Teach kids to wash properly. Have them rub soap on their hands for 15 – 20 seconds- be sure they scrub palms, backs of hands, fingers, spaces between the fingers and even under the fingernails.
Before preparing food
After toileting or changing a diaper
When they’re obviously soiled
After sneezing or coughing into hands or wiping nose
Before and after touching eyes
When taking care of a wound wash your hands before and after washing and treating the wound
Often when taking care of someone who is sick
After touching trash or soiled objects
Consider having separate towels for each family member in your bathrooms to decrease the spread of germs when they wipe their mouth after brushing their teeth.
Hand sanitizer is a good option when washing isn’t available, but it is not helpful against some germs, so handwashing is preferred.
Use lotion as needed to keep your skin moisturized. Dry skin damages the barrier that helps prevent germs from getting into our bodies.
Germs can live on objects and surfaces for 2 or 3 hours – sometimes longer. Clean your child’s toys often with soap and water.
Don’t touch your face. Eyes, ears, and noses are the doors into our body.
Avoid handshakes and other hand to hand contact. Try a fist bump or wave!
Avoid taking young children to large groups of people during the cold and flu season, especially if people are showing signs of illness.
We can help prevent many of the most serious illnesses by staying up to date on our vaccines.
Bronchiolitis (often called RSV) is an infection of the respiratory tract that leads to wheezing and difficulty breathing. Learn why it’s scary to many parents and what you can do about it.
Bronchiolitis is an infection of the respiratory tract that leads to wheezing and difficulty breathing, most often in infants and children under 2 years of age. It’s often called simply “RSV.” While it’s often caused by a virus called Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), it’s not always. Let’s talk about what it is and what we can do about it.
Symptoms of bronchiolitis
Bronchiolitis often starts off just like a common cold, with a runny nose or congestion. In older children and adults it progresses just like a cold. Because it is.
In infants and young children symptoms can progress to make them more significantly sick. Day 3-5 of illness often is the worst.
Symptoms include (but not everyone has all):
Rapid heavy breathing (more than 60 breaths per minute – always count for a full minute in babies because they can pant or hold their breath, which throws the count off)
Wheezing (tight breathing with a whistling sound)
Retractions (the skin between ribs suck in during inspiration)
Nasal flaring (where the nostrils widen with breathing)
Belly breathing (the abdomen moves up and down more than usual)
Cough (which can occasionally cause vomiting)
Lots of mucus from the nose and mouth (lots!)
Decreased appetite (which can lead to dehydration, so offer frequent liquid feedings)
RSV is a common cause, which is why the condition is often simply called RSV. Most of us have had RSV by the time we’re 3 years old. It doesn’t always cause the symptoms of bronchiolitis. Sometimes it just looks like a common cold, especially in older kids and adults. This is why it’s really important to protect young infants around people who are just a little sick.
Bronchiolitis can be caused by many of the viruses that cause upper respiratory tract infections. Rhinovirus, metapneumovirus, adenovirus, influenza, parainfluenza, and coronavirus are some of the other culprits.
Who’s at risk?
Symptoms tend to be worst in babies who are higher risk. This includes infants who were born prematurely, those who have certain heart defects, the very young, or those with other chronic conditions.
Infants are more at risk of having simple cold viruses cause the more severe symptoms of bronchiolitis. Their narrow airways contribute to this because they become plugged with mucus more easily than larger airways.
All viral illnesses are more common among infants who are in daycare or around lots of people. The more people, the more likely they’ll be exposed to a person sharing germs. Infants also put their hands and toys in their mouth often, which helps them get germs into their body.
Those who are around cigarette smoke are also more at risk because of the chronic airway irritation caused by smoke. Even babies who are around people who smoke prior to being with the child can get third hand smoke exposure from hair and clothing.
Standard infection control protocols can help avoid spread.
Wash hands frequently or use hand sanitizer. Teach kids to get all parts of their hands clean. Wash hands even when you’re not feeling sick… we share germs before we know we have them and we need to protect ourselves from catching new ones!
Have separate towels (or disposable towels) in the bathroom. After brushing your teeth, you don’t want to wipe on a towel that was used by someone who’s brewing germs!
Don’t kiss babies on their face, hands, or feet. The top of the head is best!
Avoid cigarette smoke – even second hand and third hand smoke (on surfaces) can cause airway irritation. This irritation makes it harder to fend off germs, which leads to more infections.
Germs can live on surfaces and objects for 2 or 3 hours or longer. It’s a good idea not to share toys because babies put them in their mouth all the time. Clean your child’s toys often with soap and water.
Cover coughs and sneezes properly.
There are tests that can be done on mucus from the nose to see which virus is the culprit, but they aren’t usually required.
Knowing if it’s RSV or another virus doesn’t make the symptoms change. We treat symptoms.
Testing can be used for infection control measures when babies are admitted to the hospital, but aren’t always necessary.
Tests are expensive, and unless they change something we’ll do, they aren’t generally recommended. Why waste your money? (Even if you think insurance will cover it, the money comes from somewhere… you’ll pay more in premiums if you spend more.)
It is common to check oxygen levels when kids (and adults) are sick. Pulse oximeters are an inexpensive tool to help us assess how well a person is compensating when having trouble breathing.
Most infants and children with bronchiolitis do not need a chest x-ray, but they are sometimes used to assess for pneumonia or foreign bodies (such as a swallowed coin) that can cause wheezing.
Blood tests are not usually needed to diagnose or treat bronchiolitis but they can help to identify if there’s a need for antibiotics due to a bacterial infection. Sometimes we check blood if we’re worried about dehydration.
The virus must run its course and symptoms can last several weeks, so what can you do to help ease symptoms?
You can use fever reducers if your baby is uncomfortable. These include acetaminophen if your baby is over 2-3 months and ibuprofen or acetaminophen if your baby is over 6 months. I don’t recommend fever reducers before babies get their 2 month vaccines because you can mask symptoms of serious disease. See your physician if your unimmunized child has a fever!
Remember that a fever is the body’s immune system at work, so your goal is comfort, not getting rid of the fever.
Babies with bronchiolitis often seem as if their nose is a faucet. All that mucus interferes with breathing and feeding. They can’t blow their nose, but you can suck it out!
I’m not a fan of bulb syringes as a nasal aspirator. I find that they have too narrow of a tip to get an effective seal in the nostril until you force it up so far that it causes trauma in the nose. They also run out of suction power before the mucus is all out, which means you must break the seal, empty it out, and resume. This gives your child a chance to suck back some of the mucus you brought forward. Not to mention some of the really gross photos I’ve seen of what grows inside those things!
Here’s a review of various nasal aspirator types and brands. I like the review in general and have no ties to it. She does link to sales, but you can buy from your favorite retailer.
Use one of the aspirators to suction your infant’s nose as they need it. It’s especially helpful before feeding and before they go to sleep, but think of how often you blow your nose when you’re sick. It can be helpful quite often!
Saline can help thin out mucus and decrease the swelling of nasal tissues.
Raise the head of the bed to help with drainage of mucus. Don’t put your infant on a pillow because that can obstruct breathing. Raise the head of the bed by putting something solid under the legs of the bed or roll a blanket or towel and place it under the mattress at the head of the bed.
I remember many nights of sitting up holding my children when they were sick so they could be upright and sleep. That doesn’t mean I slept well, but that’s what moms do sometimes. You do need to be careful with this – babies can be dropped if a parent falls asleep holding them.
Encourage your child to drink fluids in small amounts. This can be breast milk or formula, or water for older infants and children.
Many babies tire out drinking, so they need to drink more frequently than normal to get in a decent volume.
If your baby isn’t drinking well and looks dehydrated, talk to your physician.
Humidify the air
A cool mist vaporizer or humidifier can help your child breathe easier.
Change the water every day.
Clean the machine per the manufacturer recommendations to prevent it being a source of germs.
Things to avoid
Never use menthol products around infants. They have been shown to increase mucus production and worsen symptoms, especially in children under 2 years.
Don’t demand antibiotics. It cannot be cured with antibiotics. No viral illness can.
Decongestants thicken mucus and can lead to more difficulty breathing, sleep disturbances and irritability.
Historically we have tried medical treatments when infants present with bronchiolitis. These include breathing treatments with bronchodilators, steroids, and more.
A single treatment with a bronchodilator can be used to see if there’s response to decrease wheezing, but should not be continued if there’s no benefit.
Steroids have not been shown to help unless there’s a history of asthma.
Oxygen is a standard treatment that can help if the oxygen level is low or to ease the work of breathing.
Intravenous (iv) fluids are often required if hydration from feedings is not successful.
Suctioning is a primary treatment in the hospital setting, much like at home.
When should kids be seen?
Infants and children should be seen relatively quickly if the following criteria are met:
Infants under 2 months of age should be assessed by a physician. They often require hospitalization because of the risk of apnea. Apnea is when they stop breathing and is a risk of very young infants with bronchiolitis.
Respiratory rate over 60 breaths/minute consistently. It’s common to breathe faster with a fever, so if you can bring it down and their breathing is less labored, that’s okay. They also temporarily breathe faster after eating or crying. Again, if it slows within a few minutes, that’s okay.
Dehydration. Signs of dehydration include no tears, thick/pasty or no saliva, or fewer than 3 wet diapers in 24 hours.
The color of the child’s lips or skin looks blue.
The infant looks uncomfortable or is inconsolable.
Infants under 3 months (or an under-vaccinated child) with a temperature over 100.4F.
If your child simply isn’t getting better after several days or if earache develops, make an appointment during regular office hours.
The barky cough of croup is distinctive. It’s not a typical wet or congested cough. It’s like a seal bark. The good news is we can often treat it at home.
Many parents get scared when they hear the barky cough of croup. I’ve even been scared when my own children have it. I know what it is, but their breathing gets so labored that it’s scary.
Sounds of coughing
Parents describe many coughs as “croupy” but most of the time they’re mistaking a wet, mucous-filled cough for croup.
It can be difficult to sort out all the various sounds of coughing, which is why I previously gathered a number of videos into one blog.
The barky cough of croup is distinctive. It’s not a typical wet or congested cough. It’s like a seal bark. The good news is we can often treat it at home.
What is croup?
Croup is a distinctive set of symptoms that occur due to inflammation around a young child’s voicebox in the larynx and trachea.
Many people describe a croupy cough as a seal bark sound. They often make a hoarse or squeaky sound called stridor when they inhale.
Croup often starts suddenly in the middle of the night.
What causes croup?
Croup is usually caused by viruses and tends to be most common in the Fall. The viruses that cause croup are common and usually cause runny nose or congestion and sometimes cause a fever.
One child may get full-blown croup, but another will get a simple cold with the same virus. Some kids seem to get croup often, while others may never get it.
Can older kids get croup?
Croup is most common in kids less than 5 years of age, but older kids can occasionally get it.
Older children and adults tend to get laryngitis with the same viruses that cause croup. Their airways are bigger, so the swelling that occurs near the voicebox isn’t as severe.
Croup is tricky
Croup often looks like a simple upper respiratory tract infection or cold during the day. Nothing to worry about…
In the middle of the night you will hear a sudden barking sound, much like a seal barking. A child with croup looks distressed and very sick at night, but seems much better the next day.
For many kids, it’s just one night of this scary cough, but it can last several nights in others.
Some kids continue to have what is called stridor or trouble talking during the day. Stridor is a hoarse sound that you can replicate by breathing in while tightening your vocal cords. It sounds like a squeak or wheeze as kids breath in. Stridor is due to the swelling near the vocal cords that’s found in croup.
This is a simple yet very helpful video to hear the sound of croup and for management tips.
How is croup diagnosed?
Croup is what we call a clinical diagnosis. No lab or x-ray is needed.
A doctor or nurse will ask questions about various symptoms, and if we hear the classic cough or stridor, it supports the diagnosis.
How is croup treated?
If you recognize croup, there are many at home treatments you can try.
Taking kids outside into the cool night air often helps soothe the airway.
If the weather isn’t appropriate, you can open your freezer door and let them breathe in that air. (This has never been my favorite advice because it means a sick kid will be breathing on the frozen food and then there’s the wasted energy…)
The airway can also be soothed by taking kids into a bathroom, closing the door, and turning the shower to the hottest setting. Just sit in the bathroom – not in the shower.
Usually after 10-15 minutes breathing normalizes.
One thing I learned when my son first had croup: don’t leave the bathroom as soon as breathing calms down. Turn off the shower and just sit there for awhile. We had a rebound croup that was less scary, but unnecessary, when we tried to get him back to bed quickly. Letting the room get closer to the home’s normal air quality before going back into the hall and bedroom is time well spent.
Humidifiers and vaporizers
When we’re sick in the dry weather months, I always recommend adding a vaporizer or humidifier to the bedrooms. This is especially helpful if a child is at risk for croup due to age.
What about medicine?
If kids are uncomfortable, you can use acetaminophen or ibuprofen as a pain reliever. These do not help the cough, but they can help with comfort.
Since steroids decrease inflammation, they are often used when kids get croup. These can only be used with a prescription and your doctor’s instructions. See your doctor if you’re interested in any prescription medicine.
Croup is often mistaken for wheezing, but it is not treated with a bronchodilator like asthma.
The swelling near the voicebox is much different than the smaller airway narrowing that occurs with wheezing, and the bronchodilators (albuterol or levalbuterol) work on the smaller airways.
If kids have asthma, they can wheeze from the same virus that leads to croup, and in that case their asthma medicine helps.
In the hospital or ER setting some kids will get a breathing treatment of epinepherine. This should only be done in a supervised setting so they can be properly monitored.
Croup is usually caused by a virus, so antibiotics don’t help.
There is also something called spasmotic croup, but that also is not treated with antibiotics.
When should kids go to the ER or their doctor?
Since croup is worst at night, most of the kids who need to be seen end up in the ER. If your child has stridor during the day, they can be seen at their usual doctor’s office.
If the above home treatments don’t work after about 15-20 minutes, you should take your child to be seen.
Kids who seem very anxious due to breathing difficulties will also benefit from a proper medical exam and treatment.
Trouble swallowing along with difficulty breathing should be evaluated by a physician.
If you notice that your child seems better leaning slightly forward while sitting, he should be seen.
Any child who is not up to date on vaccines, especially the Hib vaccine, should be seen with labored breathing. Epiglottitis is now rare, thanks to vaccines, but if a child isn’t vaccinated, it is still possible to get this. It can cause stridor, fever, difficulty breathing, and other similar symptoms to croup. Be sure the physician knows your child isn’t vaccinated!
Most people want it gone now. (Or more likely, last week.)
Unfortunately despite our medical advancements over the years, we still have no cure for colds and coughs. Viruses do not get killed by antibiotics, and most colds and coughs are caused by viruses.
I don’t hold back on advice when I see kids with disturbing colds and coughs. I sympathize with the child and parents. I’ve been there: both as a person with a bad cold and as a parent watching my kids struggle with colds. But I still can’t make them better faster.
Blow the mucus out. If a child’s too young to blow his nose well, parents can suck the snot right out.
Honey for children over 12 months of age
Prop the head up during sleep
But then we still have the original question: How long will a cough or cold last?
One of my favorite graphs depicting the timeline of a typical upper respiratory infection is from research done in the 1960’s, but since we don’t have any better treatment now than we did back then, I find it to hold true to what I experience when I get a cold and what I see in the office.
Notice how the symptoms are most severe during the first 1-5 days, but still persist for at least 14 days. And at 14 days 20% of people still have a cough, 10% still have a runny nose. And the lines aren’t going down fast at that point, they both seem to linger.
Bear in mind that children tend to get about 8 colds per year, often in the fall/winter months, so a second virus might start developing symptoms right as the first cold is finally going away.
There’s an important distinction between back to back illnesses versus a sinus infection requiring antibiotics. This is why doctors and nurses ask (and re-ask) about symptoms. The history and timeline of symptoms are very important in a proper diagnosis.
It isn’t the color of the mucus (really!) We don’t want people to unnecessarily take antibiotics. That leads to bacterial resistance, side effects of medicine, and increased cost to families.
So if you’re struggling with cough and cold symptoms in your house, follow these instructions.
To help determine when your child needs to be seen:
Urgently or emergently:
If your child is breathing more than 60 times in a minute, ribs are going in and out with breaths, or the belly is sucking in and out with each breath, your child needs to be seen in the office, at urgent care or an ER (preferably one that specializes in children), depending on time of day and your location. Another complication that kids must be seen for is dehydration. Dehydration may be present when the child is unable to take in enough fluids to make urine at least 4 times a day for infants, twice a day for older children.
Routine office visits:
If your child has ear pain, trouble sleeping, or general fussiness but is otherwise breathing comfortably and well hydrated, he should be seen during regular office hours. If the cold is worsening after 10-14 days, bring your child in during regular office hours.
Hello. This is Dr. Stuppy. I’m returning your call about…
That’s how my phone calls start, then they take various turns. Some are easy, some not so easy. I’d like to discuss what makes a phone call to the doctor’s office more productive, so we can help you better.
All examples are entirely fictitious, made up of 18 + years of phone call experiences.
Many calls start off like this:
Hi. This is Mary Sue. My son has a rash and I want to know what to do.
I must ask many questions for more information.
Some callers don’t seem to know what to say, so they only answer direct questions. How old is your son? When did the rash start? What does it look like? Has it changed? Does it itch or hurt? Any other symptoms? What have you used to treat it? Did that help? Has he had any new ingestions, lotions, or creams? Does he have a history of allergies? Anyone else with a rash that looks like this?
On and on…
Other calls start like this:
Hi. Thanks for calling back. My son Jack is 3 years old. Well, really his birthday isn’t until next month, but he’s almost 3. He has had a fever for 2 days, maybe 3 days because he felt warm but he wasn’t acting funny or sick that first day he felt warm so I didn’t check his temperature. He actually was fussy last week, but I don’t think he ever had a fever then. I was thinking maybe he didn’t sleep well last week, but I don’t know why. His temperature was 100.3, that was on Tuesday around 7am. I gave Tylenol, and it went down to 97.9, but then 4 hours later it was back up to 99.7….
My thoughts so far: Get to the point.
Sorry, but that’s true. I care about my patients, but so far this phone call has taken me quite a bit of time and I really know nothing except this almost 3 year old has an elevated temperature (not even a true fever). I don’t even know what the parent’s main concern is.
just the facts, MA’AM.
When parents call, they need to summarize with pertinent facts. While they shouldn’t leave out important helpful information, they don’t need to mention every time they took a temperature.
Much like the evening news: they can’t do a play by play of every football game. There’s no time and it serves no purpose. A few highlights of the game and the score. That works well. People get a pretty good idea of how the game went.
It’s the same thing with phone calls to your doctor’s office or on call provider. We have thousands of patients. Not all call, but during peak cold and flu season, there are many calls all day and night. The phone nurse or on call provider simply can’t spend 15 minutes chatting about every detail. That’s for your friend and you to discuss over coffee.
During the cold and flu season, it’s not uncommon for me to be on the phone with one parent when another call comes in. This is at the same time I’m trying get groceries or do other things I need to do for my family on evenings and weekends. (Being on call after hours doesn’t mean that I don’t have to work during the day.) I really don’t want to sit and chat. I don’t have time for play by play action. Again, I really care about my patients, but I can do a better job at answering your questions if you are clear and concise.
Things that help us help you:
Know what’s going on.
When a parent calls and the child is at daycare or grandma’s so the caller doesn’t know details, we can’t really help. Yes, parents have called for advice when they’re on their way to daycare but don’t know any more than the child has to be picked up due to a symptom such as vomiting, fever or pink eye.
See your child first or have the person with the child call us. When you pick up the child, ask for details of their day. Learn how they ate/drank, how they acted, etc.
Sometimes you’ve been up several nights in a row with a sick child and things get jumbled in your head. It happens.
Write down the pertinent facts to get them straight if you need to.
Start with your child’s full name and birth date.
I can’t tell you how often parents jump right into their worries without stating who their child is. This is important not only for chart documentation of the call but also so we know how old your child is.
Include any significant past history, such as your infant was born at 28 weeks gestation, or your coughing 3 year old has a history of wheezing.
Give pertinent facts related to the concern.
If your child has a fever, give the number of days of fever, the maximum temperature, and how it was taken.
If you have given a fever reducer, share that.
Find a quiet place to talk.
When my kids were little they always wanted to be held when they were sick. I get it.
If you’re on the phone and they’re crying in your arms, it’s very hard to have a conversation.
Please find a safe place for your child to rest while we talk if possible.
If they won’t leave you or stay quiet, have another adult talk to us after they’ve been briefed about all the symptoms.
Summarize symptoms and treatments.
Briefly describe symptoms and what you have done to help them as well as how your child responded to the treatment.
Mention All treatments
If you use a vaporizer or saline for a cold, or have stopped dairy and used gatorade for vomiting, let us know. If you use a traditional home remedy, please let us know.
Let us know any medications your child typically takes in addition to ones you have tried for the current symptoms.
Signs and symptoms can be tricky to describe
When there’s a rash, it’s typically best for us to see it, but if you call about a rash describe it in terms of location, color, and size. Many find it helpful to relate to common objects, such as quarter-sized.
Note if there is a pattern to the symptoms, such as headache every day after school or barky cough only at night.
Summarize, don’t tell a novel
Leave out details that don’t help. Trends and generalizations work well.
If we want more details, we can always ask.
Avoid words that could be interpreted other ways, use facts.
Commonly misused words are “lethargic” and “fever.”
Lethargy in a medical sense is ominous. Many parents use it when their child is only mildly ill and tired. Describe what you’re seeing instead. Saying “Johnny won’t even wake enough to drink or hold his cup,” gives me the thought he is lethargic. Saying “Johnny wants to sit on my lap and read books instead of playing with his sister,” shows that he’s not well, but definitely not lethargic.
Fever is a temperature over 100.4 F. Many parents use the word fever if their child feels warm to touch. It’s more clear if you state that they’re warm to touch or what the thermometer says and how you took it.
I’m calling about Joe Smith, birth date 9.12.08. He has had a fever for 3 days, up to 101.3 under the arm. It comes down with ibuprofen, but is right back up in 6 hours. He also has sore throat and headache. He’s drinking well but not eating much for 3 days.
I know this child’s name, age, pattern of fever and associated symptoms. The only thing I need now is the parent’s concern – so far they’ve been doing everything right. What made them call today? What’s their question?
Sally Smith, birth date 9.12.17, has vomited 6 times in the past 12 hours. If I give formula it immediately comes up. She is now dry heaving and hasn’t had a wet diaper in 12 hours. There’s no fever but she looks tired and it is hard to wake her to drink. She doesn’t have diarrhea. Her older brother had the stomach flu a few days ago but is now better.
Again, I know the child’s name and age and main problem – especially the fact that she sounds dehydrated. The parent didn’t use this word, but described dehydration (no wet diaper in 12 hours and it’s hard to wake her to drink).
Include pertinent history
John Smith, birth date 9.12.17, was in the NICU for 2 months due to prematurity. He has been fussy all day and is now breathing fast and hard and is not able to drink more than a few sucks at a time. He doesn’t have a fever, but I’m really worried.
Here I know the child’s age and that he was significantly premature – a big risk factor. He’s distressed because he can’t feed. Note: I made this baby not have a fever on purpose. He’s sick even without a fever.
Getting More Information
Knowing where to get reliable information is important. There’s a lot of bad advice online. Fancy websites aren’t always reliable.
My office’s website, PediatricPartnersKC, also has many pearls of wisdom. Often when we give advice it’s already stated on our site. Parents sometimes call multiple times because they can’t remember what we said. This is frustrating on both ends of the phone. We wrote it down and made it easily available for a reason. Use our site! (For patients in other practices, check out your own pediatrician’s site.)
Things that cannot be done by on call providers – at least not well:
Prior authorization for an ER or urgent care visit that is already done.
Prior authorizations are not usually needed, but if they are required, we should talk to you to be sure the visit is necessary before you go.
If I didn’t send you to the ER, I can’t fill out paperwork saying I did. That’s lying and using my license inappropriately. Often I would have chosen another location or given home care instructions to get you through the night.
Of course if you do talk to me (or one of my partners) overnight and we do send you to an urgent care or ER, we are happy to fill out forms if needed by insurance.
You should ask their triage nurse who can make that assessment.
I typically expect that your child is seen prior to most prescription refills for best medical care. If it’s urgent that your child have a refill, such as an inhaler, they should be seen to evaluate the concern.
There are exceptions to every rule, but don’t be upset if the on call provider or phone nurse refuses to call out a prescription.
This is in the best interest of your child, not to be difficult. It’s easier to just call in the script than it is to argue this point, believe me. But easier isn’t better care, and that’s what’s important.
Make a diagnosis.
We cannot see the ear, listen to the lungs, or feel the belly over the phone. A physical exam and sometimes labs or radiology studies are needed to make a diagnosis. If your doctor claims to be able to diagnose by phone to call out prescriptions, I would suggest that they’re not doing the best of care.
An example of a poor diagnosis by phone:
Just this week another child was seen in my office for a sore throat that wasn’t better on the amoxicillin prescribed by a telemedicine doctor through their insurance company. The exam clearly showed blisters on the child’s throat. The sore throat was from these blisters, which are from a virus, not a bacteria.
The antibiotic was never needed. In this case the child simply didn’t get better as expected with a presumed case of Strep throat, but fortunately she didn’t get diarrhea or have an allergic reaction to the antibiotic. Who knows if this contributed to more bacterial resistance and superbugs?
Not only did the family waste money on an unnecessary treatment, they also exposed their child to a treatment that could have caused harm.
I worry with the increasing use of telehealth that we will see more problems related to improper diagnoses and delay of proper diagnoses – some of which could be significant.
Swallowed poisons or medicine / drug overdose.
The United States has a great poison control system. They can give rapid advice that most doctors don’t have easily available.
Call (800) 222-1222 if you suspect your child has ingested something. PUT THIS NUMBER IN YOUR PHONE RIGHT NOW.
A visit’s better than a phone call for:
If a child is having difficulty breathing and you don’t have treatments at home that work, he needs to be seen as soon as possible.
An infant who hasn’t urinated in 6-8 hours or an older child who hasn’t urinated in 12 hours might be dehydrated and should be seen as soon as possible.
Temperature above 100.4 F in an infant under 3 months or in an under immunized child can be serious and should be seen as soon as possible.
Fevers lasting more than 3-5 days or with other concerning symptoms require an evaluation.
Fevers are scary and can make kids miserable. There is no “magic” temperature that we worry about more. Look at how your child is acting, not the thermometer, to determine if they are sick. Not every child with a fever needs to even be treated. There is benefit to letting the fever do its job!
If you’ve used standard pain relievers and your child is still hurting, we cannot do anything by phone that will improve the situation. A careful exam might find a treatable cause of pain.
Though these don’t necessarily need to be seen emergently unless there are other concerns, rashes cannot be evaluated on the phone and a physical exam is needed.
If your child is otherwise well appearing, treat the symptoms of the rash.
If he’s otherwise sick and you’re concerned, then he should be seen.
If your child has been dealing with anything for more than a few days, it might help to schedule a visit with your usual provider. This is especially true if it relates to a chronic condition, such as asthma, constipation, or other issue.
Many parents deal with a problem for months (or years) but have NEVER been in to discuss it specifically. They might mention it at another visit as an aside, but we never really talk about it in depth and give it the attention it deserves.
Diagnosis vs information.
If you want a diagnosis, we need to see your child. We cannot tell if the ear is infected or if your child has Strep based on symptoms alone.
If you want advice of what to do with symptoms, we can generally give advice. Remember that the websites above can be helpful with this type of information too!
These are best discussed with your usual provider, not an on-call provider who doesn’t know your child. Most of these build up over time and are not emergent issues.
If it is an emergent issue, such as a child is in physical danger due to his actions or if a child is threatening another person, call 911.
If your child is suicidal, call the suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
If your child has a significant injury, they often require prompt evaluation. Call 911 before calling your doctor’s office if your child is seriously injured.
Lacerations must be repaired as soon as possible, so don’t wait until office hours the next day if there’s a gaping wound!
Minor bumps and bruises can be handled at home, but if you’re not sure, give us a call to discuss what happened.
Help me help you!
Let me know what else you need to know to be an educated caller.
I’d be happy to answer questions about when to call, what to ask, and what to expect.
This is the time of year it seems everyone’s coughing. I’ve heard from more than one worried parent that their child coughs to the point of vomiting. In the medical world, we call this post-tussive emesis.
Post = after, tussive = cough, emesis = vomit
Kids tend to have a very active gag reflex, so they sometimes gag themselves and vomit with cough. This can be good, since it gets the mucus out of the back of the throat. You can try to teach older kids to hack and spit it out, cough and spit it out, gargle with salt water, and rinse mucus out of the nose.
Of course it’s not fun to vomit after coughing because everything in the stomach comes up and makes a huge mess. Sometimes the vomit comes out of the nose, which can burn from the stomach acid. And vomiting can be very scary to kids.
Are there serious concerns when kids vomit from coughing?
In medical school I learned that when kids cough to the point of vomiting we should consider whooping cough, pneumonia and asthma.
In reality I find that many kids with regular cough and colds can gag from cough, but I always consider the more serious options.
What should I do if my child vomits from a cough?
First, keep your cool.
If a parent starts to get flustered, it makes the child more worried, which never helps.
Make sure your child’s breathing is okay.
Obviously he is coughing, but between coughs if the breathing rate is too fast or labored, he should be evaluated ASAP.
Rinse out your child’s mouth (and nose if needed- saline drops or rinses work well for this). Vomit is just nasty tasting and can burn in the nose.
Treat the cough.
If your child has asthma, give a breathing treatment or their rescue inhaler.
If your child is over a year of age, you can use honey to help a cough. A teaspoon usually does the trick.
If your infant is under a year of age or your child has not had the whooping cough vaccines (Dtap in infants and young kids and Tdap in tweens), he should be evaluated. Some babies with whooping cough stop breathing so many are hospitalized to monitor for complications.
After a single episode of vomiting if your child’s breathing is comfortable, just continue to manage at home.
If your child develops difficulty breathing or dehydration, he should be seen as soon as possible, ideally at a location that routinely cares for children.
If your child continues to vomit after coughing but is comfortable between episodes and is well hydrated, he should be seen during normal business hours at his regular doctor’s office.
I’ve seen a few kids this season who have influenza despite the fact that they had the vaccine. When the family hears that the flu test is positive (or that symptoms are consistent with influenza and testing isn’t done), they often say they won’t do the flu shot again because it didn’t work.
Don’t rely on Tamiflu to treat flu symptoms once you’ve gotten sick.
Tamiflu really isn’t that great of a treatment. It hasn’t been shown to decrease hospitalization or complication rates. It shortens the course by about a day. It has side effects and can be expensive. During flu outbreaks it can be hard to find.
I get a lot of requests for an over the counter cough suppressant suggestion or a prescription cough medicine for kids so they can sleep. Despite my attempts at educating the family about why I don’t recommend any cough medicines, many parents are upset leaving without a medicine.
I have collected numerous articles that show why I treat cough the way I do. Links are included throughout this blog. Click away to learn more!
First, a little background
Most cough medicines were studied in adults and the dosing for kids was calculated from the adult dosage.
Kids are not small adults. Their bodies handle illness and metabolize drugs differently.
But few studies have been done to show if medicines work at all, and if they do, what the best dose is for kids of various ages and sizes.
In 2008 the FDA stated that toddlers and babies should not use cold and cough medicines.
Drug makers voluntarily changed the labeling of over the counter (OTC) cough and cold products, recommending them only for children aged 4 and older. The American Academy of Pediatrics says there is no reason that parents should use them in children under age 6 because of the risks without benefit.
Despite this, studies show that 60% of parents of children under 2 years have given a cough and cold medicine. Why? In my opinion, they are desperate to help their child and don’t think it is enough risk to not at least try.
I know it’s frustrating when your child is up all night coughing. It’s frustrating when my kids and I are up all night coughing.
do you know what we do in my house?
Humidify the air of the bedroom (during the dry months)
Extra water to drink all day
Honey before bedtime in an herbal tea (No honey before 1 year of age!)
Encourage cough during the day to help clear the airways
Sleep with water next to the bed to sip on all night long
Back rubs, hugs, kisses, & reminders that it will get better
Nap during the day as needed to catch up on lost sleep
Watch for signs of wheezing or distress
That’s about it for the cough.
If something hurts, we use a pain reliever like ibuprofen or acetaminophen. We use those only if something hurts, not just because and not for fever without discomfort.
Why don’t I give my family cough medicines?
Because they don’t work.
The OTC options:
A Cochrane Review in 2007 was done to look at over the counter cough medicine effectiveness in both children and adults. These reviews look at many studies and analyze the data. Unfortunately there are very few studies, and many were of poor quality because they relied on patient report. In studies that included children, they found:
Antitussives were no more effective than placebo for kids. (one study) In adults codeine was no more effective than placebo. Two studies showed a benefit to dextromethorphan, but another study did not, so mixed results.
Expectorants had NO studies done in children. In adults guaifenesin compared to placebo did not show a statistically different response.
Mucolytics more effective than placebo from day 4-10 in kids. (one study) In adults cough frequency was decreased on days 4 and 8 of the cough. (Note: I am not sure what OTC mucolytic was studied. I am only aware of pulmozyme and mucomyst, both used by prescription in children with cystic fibrosis.)
Antihistamine-decongestant combinations offered no benefit over placebo. (2 studies) One of two studies showed benefit in adults. The other did not.
Antihistamine shows no benefit over placebo. (one study) In adults antihistamines did not help either.
Another Cochrane Review in 2012 once again failed to show any real benefits of cough medicines, especially given the risks of side effects.
What about some specific studies on OTC medicines?
Does guaifenesin help? It is thought to thin mucus to help clear the airways. It does not stop the cough. Studies vary in effectiveness and are typically done in adults, but it may be helpful in children over 4 years of age. Do not use combination cough medicines though, for all the reasons above.
What side effects and other problems are there from over the counter cough medicines?
As stated above, the dosages for children were extrapolated from studies in adults. Children metabolize differently, so the appropriate dosage is not known for children. Taking too much cold medicine can produce dangerous side effects, including shallow breathing and death.
Many cough medicines have more than one active ingredient. This can increase the risk of overdosing. It also contributes to excess medicines given for problems that are not present. For instance if there is a pain reliever plus cough suppressant, your child gets both medicines even if he only has pain or a cough. Always choose medicines with one active ingredient.
Accidentally giving a child a too much medicine can be easy to do. Parents might use two different brands of medicine at the same time, not realizing they contain the same ingredients. Or they can measure incorrectly with a spoon or due to a darkened room. Or one parent forgets to say when the medicine was given and the other parent gives another dose too soon.
And then there’s non-accidental overdose. There is significant abuse potential: One in 20 teens has used over the counter cough medicines to get high. Another great reason to keep them out of the house!
Side effects of cough medicines include:
Nausea and vomiting
Double or blurred vision
Impaired physical coordination
Rapid heart beat
Numbness of fingers and toes
Death, especially in children under 2 years of age and those with too high of a dose
Every year at this time, I think about how our kids are managed when they become sick. Not only what we do to treat symptoms, but how, when, and where patients get medical advice and care. During cold and flu season kids get sick. A lot.
We are a busy society. We want things done now. Quickly. Cheaply. Correctly. Resolution so we can get back to life.
Illness doesn’t work that way.
Most childhood illnesses are viruses and they take a few weeks to resolve. There’s no magic medicine that will make it better.
Please don’t ask for an antibiotic to prevent the runny nose from developing into a cough or ear infection.
Don’t ask for an antibiotic because your child has had a fever for 3 days and you need to go back to work.
Don’t ask for an antibiotic because your teen has a big test or tournament coming up and has an awful cough.
Antibiotics simply don’t work for viruses. They also carry risks, which are not worth taking when the antibiotic isn’t needed in the first place.
Urgent cares are popular because they’re convenient.
Convenient isn’t always the best choice. Many times kids go to an urgent care after hours for issues that could wait and be managed during normal business hours. I know some of this is due to parents trying to avoid missing work or kids missing school, but is this needed?
Can it hurt?
Extra tests = Extra costs
Some kids will get unnecessary tests, x-rays, and treatments at urgent cares and emergency rooms that don’t have a reliable means of follow up. They attempt to decrease risk often by erring with over treating.
The primary care office does have the ability to follow up with you in the near future, so we don’t have to over treat.
Urgent cares outside of your primary care office don’t have a child’s history available.
They might choose an inappropriate antibiotic due to allergy or recent use (making that antibiotic more likely less effective).
It’s easy to fail to recognize if your child doesn’t have certain immunizations or if they do have a chronic condition, therefore leaving your child open to illnesses not expected at their age.
We know that parents can and should tell all providers these things, but the new patient information sheets in my office are often erroneous when compared to the transferred records from the previous physician. Parents don’t think about the wheezing history or the surgery 5 years ago every visit.
It’s so important to have old records!
Records in one place
Receiving care at multiple locations makes it difficult for the medical home to keep track of how often your child is sick.
Is it time for further evaluation of immune issues?
When should you consider ear tubes or a tonsillectomy?
If we don’t have proper documentation, these issues might have a delay of recognition.
Not all locations are good with kids
Urgent cares and ERs are not always designed for kids.
I’m not talking about cute pictures or smaller exam tables.
I’m talking about the experience of the provider. If they are trained mostly to treat adults, they might be less comfortable with kids.
They might order extra labs or x-rays that a pediatric trained physician would not feel are necessary.
This increases cost as well as risk to your child.
Drug choice and dosing can be complicated for clinicians not familiar with pediatric care.
We have been fortunate in my area to have many urgent cares available after hours that are designed specifically for kids, which does help. But this is sometimes for convenience, not for the best medical care.
As previously mentioned, cost is a factor.
I hate to bring money into the equation when it comes to the health of your child, but it is important, especially with the increasing rates of high deductible health insurance – you will feel the burden of cost.
Healthcare spending is spiraling out of control.
Urgent cares and ERs usually charge more.
This cost is increasingly being passed on to consumers. Your copay is probably higher outside the medical home. The percentage of the visit you must pay is often higher. If you pay out of pocket until your deductible is met, this can be a substantial difference in cost. (Not to mention they tend to order more tests and treatments, each with additional costs.)
What about the walk in clinic at your primary care office?
Many pediatric offices offer walk in urgent care as a convenience for parents who are worried about their acutely ill child.
If your doctor offers this, the care given is within the medical home, which allows access to your child’s chart. All treatments are within your child’s medical record so it is complete.
Staff follow the same protocols and treatment plans as scheduled patients, so your child will be managed with the protocols the group has agreed upon. Essentially primary care pediatricians have a high standard of care and want your child to receive that great care in the medical home as often as possible.
There are more and more telehealth options offered by insurance companies and physicians. This is a new area that has exciting potentials, but I’m concerned about inappropriate treatments. It can be a great tool to follow up on ongoing issues, but is not appropriate for many routine earaches, sore throats, and other issues that require an exam and/or testing.
I know it’s tempting to call in to get a prescription for a presumed ear infection or Strep throat, but think about how those diagnoses are made and remember that overuse of antibiotics increases risks to your child.
So what kinds of issues are appropriate for various types of visits?
(Note: I can’t list every medical problem, parental decisions must be made for individual situations. For a great review of how to determine if it’s an emergency, see Reliable keys to identify a medical emergency from Dr. Oglesby at Watercress Words.)
After hours (urgent care or ER- preferably one for children):
Difficulty breathing (not just noisy congestion or cough but increased work of breathing)
Injury (including but not limited to bleeding that won’t stop, a wound that gapes open, obvious or suspected broken bone)
Pain that is not controlled with over the counter medicines
Severe abdominal pain
Fever >100.4 rectally if under 3 months of age or underimmunized. (There is no magic temperature we “worry more” if an older child is vaccinated.)
Walk in clinic (or appointment) at your primary care provider’s office:
Vomiting and/or diarrhea
Any new illness
Issues better addressed with an Appointment in the Medical Home:
Follow up of any issue (ear infection, asthma, constipation) unless suddenly worse, then see above
Parents often bring in kids with a cough but can’t describe what it sounds like. I sometimes get to hear it if they cough, but Murphy’s Law also says that a child who coughs often throughout the night and frequently during the day will have a 15 minute period of no cough at the exact time the doctor is in the exam room.
In all seriousness — coughs, regardless of the source — are usually worse at night, which means your doctor won’t usually get to hear the worst of it.
They can also change over time. For instance, croup often starts as a sudden barky cough that over days turns into a wet cough.
I often wish there was one place I could refer parents to so they could see what various coughs sound like, so I decided to put a list together. The internet is ripe with videos, but I have spent many hours watching videos that weren’t very helpful in order to find these. I’m sure I missed some of the best ones, so if you have one that you really like, please post in the comments below.
Regardless of how the cough sounds, if you’re worried about your child’s breathing or the sound of the cough, bring your child in to be seen.
Disclaimer: I have no ties to any of the videos below and am not responsible for any of the opinions or errors within them. Some are professionally done and others are videos parents uploaded. Some have advertisements which I do not endorse.
The initial seconds of this baby with croup stridor video show the typical croupy cough. At about 0:55 it shows the stridor that many kids with croup have. Stridor is a whistling sound as the baby breathes in (often confused with wheezing, which happens when you breathe out). It is common in croup and is caused by the swelling near the voice box. (Older kids and adults who get the same viruses that cause croup in younger kids often get laryngitis from the swelling near the voice box in a larger neck.)
This ER physician of TheEDExitVideo spends the first couple of minutes discussing what causes croup. At 2:27 sounds of stridor in an otherwise happy looking baby are shown. At 3:44 is a picture showing intercostal retractions (also seen with wheezing or other types of respiratory distress).
TheKidsDr also has a great informational video on croup.
Dry cough can be from an irritation in the throat, asthma, acid reflux, or any common cold. It can also come from a habit cough (often seen after an illness and goes away with sleep only to return when awake).
If you’re sitting here reading this and not sick, make yourself cough. That’s what a dry cough sounds like.
Laryngomalacia wasn’t on my original list because it isn’t from a virus or bacteria causing illness, but it is a cause of noisy breathing in infants. It is caused by floppy tissues near the voice box (i.e. larynx). Linden’s Laryngomalacia – 3 Months shows this breathing. It is often worst when baby is excited or fussy.
The cough with pneumonia can sound like a wet cough or dry cough, so no specific videos are for this cause of cough.
The clues to pneumonia include a fever with cough, difficulty breathing between coughs, shallow breathing, shortness of breath with brief exertion, pain in the chest, rapid breathing, or vomiting after cough.
Pneumonia can be caused from viruses and bacteria and can range in severity. Walking pneumonia generally means that the person is not sick enough to require hospitalization.
Some pneumonias lead to severe difficulty breathing and require oxygen support.
Wet cough can be from pneumonia or bronchitis, but also from postnasal drip with a common cold or allergies.
When kids “cough stuff up” it is usually the postnasal drip being coughed up, not mucus from the lungs coming up. The same is true if they “cough up blood”. This blood is usually from a bloody nose draining into the throat, not from lung tissue. (Note: bloody mucus can be from more serious causes and if your child has no signs of blood in the nose or is otherwise ill, he should be properly assessed by a physician.)
Wheezing is typical in asthma (and bronchiolitis). Many parents mistake the upper airway congestion sound that many kids make with postnasal drip as wheezing.
Wheezing can sound like a whistle as a child breathes out. Ethan’s wheezing shows a baby with noisy breathing without distress. This Wheezing – Lung Sounds Collection video has the sounds one would hear with a stethoscope, but if you put your ear against your child’s back (without a shirt) you might be able to hear them.
If you don’t hear wheezing, but your child is struggling to breathe, it does not mean there is no wheezing! Treat like you would if you hear the wheeze.
Bronchiolitis is a video from the ER physician Dr Oller. He reviews causes of bronchiolitis, how it’s spread, and how it affects the body. At 1:40 he discusses the natural progression of the simple cold into bronchiolitis. At 3:04 there is a picture of how we collect a nasal swab to help with diagnose of any viral illness.
Sick with Bronchilitis shows an infant with suprasternal retractions (sucking in at the base of the neck) and the typical cough associated with bronchiolitis. The man erroneously says “croupy”, see below for croup.
RSV and Infant Treatment shows the best treatment for babies with RSV (or any bronchitis): suctioning. Some babies need this deep suctioning in the doctor’s office or hospital. Others can get by with nasal aspirating at home. I’m not a fan of the bulb syringe for this. Here’s a good review of various aspirators.
Pertussis (whooping cough) shows a young infant with a cough from pertussis. Young infants do not always whoop, they stop breathing.
8 Year Old With Pertussis (Whooping Cough) shows a typical cough for an older child. Her positioning in front of the toilet shows that these kids often vomit from the force of the cough. The 2nd video from this same girl shows how normal and healthy kids can appear between episodes.
Regardless of the sound of the cough or the ability to feel rattling in the chest, how kids are breathing is most important.
Coughs can often sound just awful but if the child is breathing comfortably and well appearing otherwise, it is probably not serious.
Conversely, some kids have a minimal cough but are suffering from difficulty breathing. If they are unable to talk and breathe or eat and breathe they should be seen. If the ribs suck in and out or the breathing is continuously more rapid than normal, they should be seen.
Don’t rely on the cough alone to decide how sick your child is. If they seem uncomfortable breathing it’s time for them to be evaluated.