How to Use This Chapter

Sooner or later, every child gets sick. When your child is sick, symptoms are the clues that guide you and your child's doctor in finding out what's wrong. Technically, the word symptom refers to what a person says he is feeling or experiencing, such as pain. The word sign refers not to the person's subjective experience but to something that can be observed and measured by a health professional, such as a fever or a heart murmur. Infants and young children are often unable to communicate their specific symptoms verbally. In this book, as in much of the literature on children's health, we often use the two terms interchangeably.

This chapter takes a basic look at a number of health problems grouped by the symptoms they usually present. Of course, many symptoms (such as "cough") may occur with dozens of different medical conditions. And although most medical problems show a typical cluster of symptoms, not all of the symptoms appear in every case. For example, although children with chicken pox usually have a mild fever in the beginning of the illness, some have no fever at all.

The exact symptoms that a medical condition produces in a given child depend on many things: his age, other medical problems he might have, his body's particular response, the strain of the virus or bacteria causing an infection—and many other factors, some of which we simply don't understand completely. Still, symptoms— sometimes along with a doctor's physical examination or lab tests—are the keys to diagnosing a child's illness.

Each section of this chapter describes a common symptom and some of its causes. For each symptom, there are lists of suggestions of what you can do at home, advice on when to call the doctor, and conditions that indicate the need for immediate medical attention. For example, the section on Abdominal Pain discusses a number of childhood conditions that might have belly pain as a major symptom. Despite the large amount of information you'll find under this heading, we can only touch upon some of the possible things that such a symptom might mean. That's why this chapter is not meant to be used by parents to diagnose their child's illness on their own. No book (or Web site) can provide a shortcut to the frequently complex process that doctors are trained to go through in determining the cause and treatment of a child's problem.

Although in this chapter we discuss situations in which you definitely need to call your child's doctor or seek emergency care for your child, you'll still need to use your common sense and best judgment. If you think your child is sick and you need help deciding what to do, or if you are simply concerned, call the doctor, even if the specific symptom is not listed under When to Call Your Child's Doctor. Your doctor is there to answer your questions and expects to be called if you have a concern.

What does the instruction "Seek emergency care" mean as it appears in this chapter? The symptoms or situations listed under this instruction call for immediate attention, but once again, you'll have to use some judgment. In general, if you think there is time to call the doctor for additional advice, do so. But don't wait long for a call back if you can't get through to the doctor right away. Call 911 if you're concerned that your child may have a life-threatening condition or one where delay might seriously threaten your child's health. If your child is truly in an unstable condition and is likely to need urgent treatment or close observation while in transit, it's usually better to make the trip to the emergency room in an ambulance or other rescue vehicle with a trained staff. But in some cases, you may feel it would be safe enough and faster to take your child to the hospital in your own vehicle, especially if it will take the ambulance a long time to reach you.

You can read more about how to deal with medical emergencies in Chapter 28, "First Aid and Emergency Care."

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