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Symptoms of serious illness in babies and children

8-minute read

Call triple zero (000) or go to your nearest emergency department if your child is very drowsy, has difficulty breathing, their skin is pale, blotchy or blue, they have had a seizure or they have a rash that does not fade when you press on it.

Key facts

  • Most illnesses in babies and children are mild and will go away by themselves.
  • You know your child best, so if you suspect something more serious, you should seek medical attention.
  • If your child is under 3 months old and has a fever, they should see a doctor urgently.

When should I see a doctor?

Most illnesses in babies and children are mild and do not need medical treatment. But if you suspect something more serious, you should seek medical attention. You know your child best. If you are worried, take them to see a doctor.

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

  • severe pain that wakes your child from sleep
  • fever or pain without a clear cause
  • pain that is getting worse
  • pain accompanied by other symptoms such as a fever, vomiting or diarrhoea
  • your child has a fever and is under 3 months old
  • fever that makes your child shiver

Other general features of a serious illness that should prompt you to seek urgent medical attention include the following:

Decrease in alertness, or irritability

If your child:

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

Changes in breathing

If your child:

Changes in skin colour and appearance

If your child:

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

Risk of dehydration

If your child:

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

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When should I call triple zero?

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 become very unwell very quickly

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Childhood illnesses that need urgent medical attention

Most childhood illnesses are mild and do not need any treatment, but some can be serious. Your child should see a doctor urgently if you are concerned that 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. Symptoms include:

  • headache
  • a sore and/or stiff neck
  • vomiting
  • being bothered by 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

A seizure is caused by rapid and uncoordinated electrical activity in the brain. It can cause stiffening and jerking of the arms and legs, and 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
  • your child has trouble breathing
  • your child injures 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 more frequently than usual
  • blood in the urine
  • fever
  • 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. You should also see your doctor if your child’s urine is pink, red or brown.


Pneumonia is an inflammation or infection of the lungs caused by a bacteria or virus. It can follow a cold. Symptoms include:

  • high fever
  • fast and difficult breathing
  • cough
  • vomiting
  • chest pain

Children with pneumonia can often be looked after by your doctor. Your doctor may refer your child to hospital if:

  • your child is under one year old
  • has severe breathing problems
  • cannot take their medicine
  • is dehydrated


Sepsis, also known as 'septicaemia' or 'blood poisoning', is a serious blood infection caused by bacteria. It can be caused by an infection anywhere in the body. Seek urgent medical attention if your child:

  • looks mottled, bluish or pale
  • is very lethargic
  • feels cold when you touch them
  • is breathing very fast,
  • has a rash that does not fade when you press it
  • has 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
  • you notice ‘deep sucking’ between their ribs or at the base of the neck as they try to breathe
  • you child’s reliever (puffer) is not helping
  • your child cannot speak a full sentence because they get out of breath
  • your child’s lips look blue
  • your child’s 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 experience anaphylaxis need an adrenaline injection (such as an EpiPen or Anapen). Call an ambulance if your child:

  • has difficult or noisy breathing
  • has swelling of the tongue
  • has swelling or tightness in the throat
  • has difficulty talking and/or hoarse voice
  • has a wheeze or persistent cough
  • has persistent dizziness or collapse
  • goes pale and floppy (in young children)

Give adrenaline if you have it and call triple zero (000) for an ambulance.

Resources and support

The Royal Children’s Hospital has many fact sheets about identifying and treating a variety of childhood conditions, including fever in children.

Not sure what to do next?

If you are still concerned, check your symptoms with healthdirect’s online Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention. The Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

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

Last reviewed: September 2023

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