Parents: Call the doctor right away for these 4 symptoms

Claire McCarthy, MD

Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Follow me on Twitter @drClaire

As a pediatrician, I’ve talked on the phone with lots of parents of sick children. As I ask my questions and try to understand what’s going on and how I can help, there are a few symptoms in particular that I listen for.

I don’t hear them often. Most of the time, it’s not serious (that’s one of the great things about pediatrics). But when I hear them, I get scared because I know there is a chance that the child is very sick, and that if they don’t get medical attention quickly, something bad could happen.

The thing about these symptoms, too, is that many parents don’t understand how serious they can be. Parents know that high fevers, cuts that bleed badly, lots of vomiting or diarrhea, bad injuries, or bad coughs need attention. But they don’t always understand the seriousness of the ones that terrify me. That’s why I think it’s important that parents know about them.

1. Lethargy. When doctors talk about “lethargy,” they aren’t talking about a lazy teenager who wants to hang out on the sofa all day. To us, the word means sleepiness that is really unusual. Now, sick children (sick people, not just children) need sleep, and it’s normal for them to sleep more than usual. But when a child wants to do nothing except sleep, or (this is important) is difficult to rouse or keep awake, that’s not okay. It’s also not okay when a child, although awake, only wants to lie still and seems sleepy and weak. If you can’t get the child to sit up, walk around, interact with you, and play a bit, that’s a bad sign.

There are lots of different things that can cause lethargy, such as infections, dehydration, bad bumps to the head, chemical imbalances, or toxins. All of them need prompt medical attention.

2.  Irritability and/or unrelenting pain. It’s certainly normal for a sick child to be cranky — and for a sick or hurt child to be in pain. But for most illnesses or injuries, you can manage crankiness or pain with TLC or medication — and with most illnesses or injuries the crankiness or pain comes and goes. But when it doesn’t let up, that’s a problem. If you can’t settle your baby or toddler, if all he does is fuss or cry (especially if he doesn’t want to eat or drink), that’s not normal; he needs to be checked out. With older children, if whatever discomfort or pain they have doesn’t go away despite your best efforts, that’s not normal either and deserves a visit to the doctor.

3.  Trouble breathing. You’d think that every parent would recognize trouble breathing, but it turns out that not all do, especially when a child isn’t coughing. Signs that a child might be in trouble include:

  • Retractions. This is when a child uses extra muscles to help them breathe; it looks like they are sucking in around the ribs or at the front of the neck. To best see this, take off the child’s shirt and really look at the chest.
  • Making a wheezing or squeaking noise when breathing that doesn’t go away when she coughs or after some time in a steamy bathroom.
  • Inability to talk — or, in babies or toddlers, inability to drink — because of breathlessness.
  • Breathing fast. This isn’t always obvious unless you look closely, and is easier to see with a shirt off.
  • Looking pale — or worse, blue. Turn on the light if it’s nighttime. Take a good look.

4.  Red or purple rashes (little spots or raised areas) that don’t get paler when you press on them. Most rashes, no matter what color they are, will get pale when you press on them, but this kind, known to doctors as petechiae (little spots) or purpura (raised areas) don’t, because they are caused by bleeding into the skin. They can be caused by a life-threatening infection as well as some other serious health problems.

Chances are these will never happen to your child. But if they do, don’t ”give it time” to see if they will get better; either bring your child immediately to your doctor or the emergency room, or call 911.

It may be that the moment you get to the doctor your child perks up, or stops crying, or otherwise looks completely fine. Don’t feel silly if that happens. When it comes to these symptoms that terrify doctors, it’s always better to be safe than very, very sorry.


  1. Jean

    You in are describing the symptoms of Sepsis here….am I right? If so, why not mention the name

    • Anthony Lai

      Not really.

      A patient with bronchiolitis with difficulty in breathing might not be in sepsis, but require urgent treatment.

      A patient with acute gastroenteritis and lethargic can be dehydrated, and a reduced oral intake can make the disease worse. Again, not necessary in sepsis.

      This is a very helpful post. Good job!

  2. Dr. Jamil qasem

    Very useful points for parents. Thanks for sharing.

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