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When to Call Your Child's Healthcare Provider 

When your child complains of a sore throat, stomachache, or headache, you worry. You want to do whatever you can to help your child feel better quickly. Sometimes, you call your child's healthcare provider for advice and sometimes you call for an appointment. But how do you know when you should care for your child at home and when you should call? Of course, if you are not sure, it is always OK to call. 

A child’s age helps to figure out when to see the healthcare provider. For example, a fever at a certain level may be reason to see the healthcare provider for a baby, but not for an older child. 

For babies: When to call

Call your healthcare provider if your baby has:

  • A fever (see Fever and children, below)

  • Trouble feeding or sucking or no interest in feeding

  • Sleeping too much or too little or having trouble getting your baby to wake up

  • Not moving much, or crying that is different than usual

  • Vomiting or diarrhea for more than a few hours

  • Changes in the baby's soft spot on the top of the head

  • Trouble breathing

  • Rash on the skin

  • Skin that looks gray or blue or that is very pale

If your baby has any of the above warning signs or if you feel something isn't right, call his or her healthcare provider. 

For children: When to call

For infants and children older than 3 months, fever becomes less of a concern. You probably don't need to see a healthcare provider for a fever without other signs of illness.

Call the healthcare provider if your child has:

  • A fever (see Fever and children, below) that occurs after the child has become overheated from being in a hot room or car

  • A fever in a child who has a weakened immune system from a health condition or medicine

  • Seeing or hearing things that aren't really there (hallucinations)

  • A seizure

  • Stiffness of the neck, a really bad headache, ear pain, or pain in the stomach

  • Trouble breathing

  • Swollen or sore joints

If your child is not feeling well, but doesn't have any of the above warning signs, he or she will most likely feel better with some extra rest, healthy drinks, and some additional cuddling. But if symptoms worsen or don't go away, or if your child isn't eating, playing, or drinking, call your child's healthcare provider. And remember to always follow your parenting instinct. If you feel something's wrong, you are probably right and should call the healthcare provider.

Fever and children

Always use a digital thermometer to check your child’s temperature. Never use a mercury thermometer.

For infants and toddlers, be sure to use a rectal thermometer correctly. A rectal thermometer may accidentally poke a hole in (perforate) the rectum. It may also pass on germs from the stool. Always follow the product maker’s directions for proper use. If you don’t feel comfortable taking a rectal temperature, use another method. When you talk to your child’s healthcare provider, tell him or her which method you used to take your child’s temperature.

Here are guidelines for fever temperature. Ear temperatures aren’t accurate before 6 months of age. Don’t take an oral temperature until your child is at least 4 years old.

Infant under 3 months old:

  • Ask your child’s healthcare provider how you should take the temperature.

  • Rectal or forehead (temporal artery) temperature of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider

  • Armpit temperature of 99°F (37.2°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider

Child age 3 to 36 months:

  • Rectal, forehead (temporal artery), or ear temperature of 102°F (38.9°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider

  • Armpit temperature of 101°F (38.3°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider

Child of any age:

  • Repeated temperature of 104°F (40°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider

  • Fever that lasts more than 24 hours in a child under 2 years old. Or a fever that lasts for 3 days in a child 2 years or older.

Medical Reviewers:

  • Holloway, Beth, RN, M.Ed.
  • Turley, Ray, BSN, MSN