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 to see a doctor
The best place to go when your child is sick is to your doctor. But if you feel your child needs to be seen urgently, call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance or go to your nearest emergency department.
Signs your child needs urgent medical attention include the following:
- your child is unresponsive
- your child is having difficulty breathing, is breathing quickly, has shallow breaths, or is grunting
- a temperature above 38°C (in a baby less than 3 months old)
- a purple or red rash that doesn't go away when you press it
- your child is pale or blue
- your child is unusually drowsy or floppy
- your child won't drink, is not passing urine, or has less than half the usual number of wet nappies
- repeated vomiting
- a high-pitched, continuous cry
- the fontanelle (soft spot on the baby's head) is bulging
- your child is having a seizure (fit)
- your child is having a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis).
You know your child best. If you are worried, take them to see a doctor.
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 2 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 your 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, their reliever (puffer) is not helping, your child cannot speak and their lips look blue, or the symptoms get worse very quickly.
Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that can be life threatening. Children who have an anaphylaxis need an adrenalin injection (such as an EpiPen or EpiPen Jr). Call an ambulance if your child has difficulty breathing or swallowing, their tongue is swollen, their throat is swollen or tight, they are having problems talking, lose consciousness or collapse, or become pale and floppy.
Last reviewed: June 2017