Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

A spotty, purple-red rash could be a sign of meningitis.

A spotty, purple-red rash could be a sign of meningitis.
beginning of content

Symptoms of serious illness in babies and children

5-minute read

Most illnesses in babies and children are mild and will go away by themselves. But if you suspect something more serious, you should seek medical attention.

When should I see a doctor?

You know your child best. If you are worried, take them to see a doctor. Always take your child to the doctor if:

There are general features of a more serious illness that should prompt you to see a doctor urgently. These include:

  • have severe pain that wakes them from sleep, is getting worse or is accompanied by other symptoms like a fever, vomiting or diarrhoea
  • they have a fever that makes them shiver

Call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance or go to your nearest emergency department if:

  • your child is very drowsy
  • they have difficulty breathing
  • their crying changes pitch or volume or they are crying continuously
  • their skin is pale, blotchy or blue
  • they have a seizure
  • they have a rash that does not fade when you press on it
  • they are a newborn who has a fever, will not feed, is vomiting a lot and/or weeing less than normal

There are other general features of a serious illness that should prompt you to seek urgent medical attention. These include the below.

Alertness and irritability

Your child:

  • is unusually drowsy or floppy
  • is unresponsive
  • has a high-pitched, continuous cry


Your child:

Skin colour and appearance

Your child:

  • is pale or blue
  • has a purple or red rash that does not go away when you press it

Fluids in and fluids out

Your child:

  • will not drink, is not passing urine, or has less than half the usual number of wet nappies
  • is repeatedly vomiting

Childhood illnesses that need urgent medical attention

There are some important and serious childhood illnesses you should be aware of. You need to get your child to a doctor if you are concerned they may have one of these conditions:


Meningitis is an inflammation of the membrane surrounding the brain and spinal cord that is commonly caused by an infection. Meningitis can be life-threatening. Signs include a headache, a sore and stiff neck, vomiting and being unable to look at bright light. There might also be a rash that does not go away when you press the skin at the site of the rash.

A seizure (fit)

A seizure or fit is caused by rapid and uncoordinated electrical activity in the brain. It can cause stiffening and jerking of the arms and legs, and a loss of consciousness. Children can have a seizure when they have a very high temperature. This is known as a febrile convulsion and is quite common. Seek urgent medical attention if this is your child's first seizure, the seizure lasts for more than 5 minutes, or if they have trouble breathing or they injure themselves.

Urinary tract infection

A urinary tract infection (UTI) is an infection of the bladder, urethra, ureters (urine tubes) or kidneys. Symptoms include pain or burning when the child urinates, a need to urinate often, blood in the urine, fever, and an uncomfortable feeling in the lower abdomen. If untreated, UTIs can lead to kidney infection. See your doctor if your child has any of these symptoms, if their urine is pink, red or brown, or they have a high, unexplained fever.


Pneumonia is an inflammation or infection of the lungs caused by a bacteria or virus. It can follow a cold. Symptoms include a high fever, fast and difficult breathing, a cough, vomiting, and pain in the chest. Children with pneumonia can often be looked after by your doctor, but go to hospital if your child is less than 1 year old, has severe breathing problems, cannot take their medicine, or is dehydrated.


Sepsis, also known as 'septicaemia' or 'blood poisoning', is a serious blood infection caused by bacteria. It can follow an infection anywhere in the body. Seek urgent medical attention if your child looks mottled, bluish or pale, if they are very lethargic, feel cold when you touch them, are breathing very fast, have a rash that does not fade when you press it, or have a seizure.


Asthma is a common illness in children. It causes wheezing, coughing and problems with breathing. About 1 in 4 children will wheeze at some time during their childhood. But it is a medical emergency if your child has severe wheezing, coughing or shortness of breath, tugging in of the skin between their ribs or at the base of the neck, their reliever (puffer) is not helping, they cannot speak a full sentence and their lips look blue, or their symptoms get worse very quickly. Call an ambulance on triple zero (000) and use asthma first aid.


Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that can be life threatening. Children who have an anaphylaxis need an adrenalin injection (such as an EpiPen). Call an ambulance if your child has difficult or noisy breathing, swelling of the tongue, swelling or tightness in the throat, difficulty talking and/or hoarse voice, wheeze or persistent cough, persistent dizziness or collapse, or goes pale and floppy (in young children). Give the adrenalin if you have it and call an ambulance on triple zero (000).

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: May 2021

Back To Top

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Serious childhood illnesses: 0-3 years | Raising Children Network

Symptoms of serious illness in babies and young children include severe drowsiness, breathing difficulty, blue skin, seizures, fever and frequent vomiting.

Read more on website

Baby cold symptoms

A baby with a cold has symptoms like a blocked nose and cough. Baby colds usually heal without treatment but are sometimes a sign of more serious illness like pneumonia or ear infection.

Read more on Parenthub website

Recognition of serious illness in children | Sydney Children's Hospitals Network

As a parent you know what your child is like when he is well so you can detect the subtle changes in mood, behaviour, activity and appetite that indicate your child may be developing an illness

Read more on Sydney Children's Hospitals Network website

Febrile convulsions in babies & children | Raising Children Network

Febrile convulsions are seizures caused by fever. Symptoms include stiffness, jerkiness or unconsciousness. These convulsions usually aren’t serious.

Read more on website

Serious childhood rashes

A rash on your baby’s skin may indicate a serious condition, especially if they also have a high temperature, cough or swollen neck glands. Learn more here.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

Bronchiolitis in babies & children | Raising Children Network

Bronchiolitis is a viral infection. It causes airway inflammation in young children’s lungs. Symptoms are cold-like and also include breathing difficulties.

Read more on website

Coughing and wheezing in children - Better Health Channel

Coughing and wheezing in babies can be distressing for you and your baby, but in most cases symptoms can be relieved at home.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Epiglottitis in babies, children & teens | Raising Children Network

Epiglottitis is a serious condition that affects children’s windpipes. If your well child suddenly develops breathing problems, get emergency medical help.

Read more on website

Colds and flu in babies and children

Information on the causes, symptoms, diagnosis and treatments of coughs, colds, flu and RSV in children and babies and when to seek medical advice.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

Vomiting in children and teenagers | Raising Children Network

Vomiting in children is common and usually nothing to worry about. But you should take your child to the doctor if you’re worried. Read more.

Read more on website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Victorian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo

Healthdirect Australia acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to the Traditional Owners and to Elders both past and present.