Toddlers tend to be susceptible to more than their fair share of coughs and colds.
So how do you decide if your toddler needs to see the doctor, or if a chat with a telehealth operator will do? And when should you call an ambulance, or take your toddler to the emergency department at your nearest hospital?
When should I take my toddler to a doctor?
See a doctor as soon as you can if your toddler:
- Gets an object lodged in his nose, ear, mouth or (for girls) vagina. Never try to remove objects yourself.
- Gets a burn larger than a quarter, particularly if the skin is blistering. This includes sunburn.
- Has a fever that is accompanied by other symptoms, such as a rash, painful urination, inconsolable crying, lethargy, sore throat or difficulty breathing. Most toddlers recover quickly from fever, but if his symptoms worsen, last more than a couple of days or the fever surpasses 101°F/39°C, call the doctor again, as it may be a sign of a serious illness or infection.
- Has to flare his nostrils to breathe.
- Cries persistently, or if his cry sounds abnormal and high-pitched.
- Is not drinking, and/or you are concerned that he is dehydrated.
- Has blood-streaked vomit or poo.
- Has an unexplained rash, particularly if it’s accompanied by a fever.
- Has pain in his eyes, is sensitive to light, has disturbed vision, or intense redness in one or both of his eyes. This could be a sign of a bacterial infection or severe conjunctivitis.
- Has had a major bump to his head.
- Has a cough and makes a sound similar to a sea lion when he breathes in. This may be croup.
- Suddenly starts limping, is unable to bear weight on a limb, or stops using an arm or leg.
- Has noisy or rapid breathing (wheezing), which may be associated with a cough. You may notice his tummy being sucked in or out with his breathing. This may be a viral infection.
- Shows one or more possible signs of meningitis. These include:
- a fever, combined with cold hands and feet
- refusing food when normally hungry
- fretful, does not want to be picked up or held
- pale, blotchy skin
- blank staring expression
- stiff neck and arched back
- a high-pitched cry
- drowsy, unresponsive, difficult to wake
If you can’t get in touch with your doctor, take your toddler immediately to your nearest hospital.
It’s fine to call a doctor if you are worried about your toddler’s health, or if you are concerned that you’re unable to do enough for your toddler at home.
Make an appointment to see a doctor if your toddler has any of these symptoms for 24 hours or more:
- Vomiting, or additional symptoms such as fever or a rash.
- Is unusually irritable and moody for no apparent reason.
- Pink, watery or sticky eyes, which could be a sign of an eye infection, such as conjunctivitis. Though conjunctivitis can be mild and not require treatment, it needs treating if his eye is very red and has a lot of discharge and crusting. This means it is bacterial and he’ll need eye drops, especially if he attends a daycare.
- Has a discharge from the ears, eyes, navel, penis or vagina.
- Has no appetite and misses more than two entire meals. This is worth mentioning to your doctor. Not drinking is more of a concern than not eating though, as this requires immediate medical treatment.
- Has a severe sore throat and has difficulty with swallowing and/or talking.
- Finds it painful to pee, or pees more or less frequently than usual.
- Has a cut or graze that oozes pus, and/or the area around it becomes hot, red, tender and swollen.
When should I call an ambulance?
If your toddler is so ill that you think he needs immediate medical treatment, such as if he has severe breathing difficulties, call 911. The operator will send an ambulance out immediately. He will also help you to assess your toddler’s condition and to give him emergency first aid until the ambulance arrives.
Call an ambulance if your toddler:
- Stops breathing.
- Is unconscious or semi-conscious.
- Can’t be woken, or if woken, doesn’t stay awake.
- Has a weak, high-pitched or continuous cry.
- Looks blue, ashen, mottled or pale.
- Is having trouble breathing, or is breathing abnormally quickly, particularly if his skin and lips start to develop a bluish tinge. This means he is not getting enough oxygen.
- Has a seizure or convulsion for the first time, or one that lasts for more than a minute. His eyes may roll back in his head, he may be unresponsive, and his limbs may twitch. Seizures are usually caused by a fever (febrile convulsions), but not always.
- Becomes unwell after swallowing something poisonous or harmful, such as medications meant for adults. Take the bottle to the hospital with you.
If your toddler has a condition or injury that is not life-threatening, but needs immediate treatment, take him to an emergency room right away.
Head straight to the hospital if your toddler:
- Has a fever and is lethargic after taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
- Is breathing very rapidly or has noisy breathing (is wheezing).
- Has a cut that is bleeding profusely, or one that is particularly deep and gaping open. To stop bleeding, apply pressure to the cut with a clean cloth and try to keep the affected part raised.
- Has a serious fall, and you suspect he may have a broken bone or sprain.
- Swallows something potentially poisonous, even if he seems well.
If you suspect poisoning or would like advice on how to prevent accidental poisoning in your home, most provinces have a poison control line. You can speak to an operator who will help to assess your situation.
What if I just need some advice?
If you can’t get an appointment with your doctor and need some advice, try:
- calling your toll-free provincial Telehealth number where you can speak to a nurse on the phone. Numbers will differ province to province but offer a 24-hour health advice helpline run by nurses. They can advise you about whether or not your toddler needs to see a doctor and can advise on whether you should go to emergency if you are unsure. They will also provide useful home-based solutions to your child’s minor ailments.
- If you’d prefer advice in person, you may try a walk-in clinic. These clinics often have longer opening hours, including weekends and don’t require appointments. They deal with minor illnesses and injuries, and you don’t need an appointment. Call in advance to make sure that your nearest centre treats young children, though. In major cities, you may find pediatric walk-in clinics.
- In addition to the regular checkups and medical assistance your family doctor or pediatrician provides, she will also help with any concerns you have about your toddler’s well-being. She can advise you on feeding your toddler, immunizations, development issues, sleep and any health concerns.
- A pharmacist can answer questions about minor ailments, such as diaper rash, coughs and colds, or about any medications your toddler is taking. You can ask which over-the-counter medicines are suitable for your toddler, or whether your toddler should see a doctor. You can walk into any pharmacy and ask to speak to a pharmacist in confidence