Often, I see parents asking a version of this question on online forums: “My kid doesn’t feel well. Coughing, low fever [insert symptoms]. Should I call the doctor?”
In most of these cases, it isn’t a clear “yes!” situation. (A definite “yes” would be if the kid is having trouble breathing, is unresponsive or difficult to arouse, a serious injury, etc.) Of course, that’s why moms are asking!
When I’m considering taking my kids to the doctor, there are three important questions I ask myself before I call. These help me to clarify the situation and whether or not we really need to go!
Three Questions to Ask Before You Call the Doctor
1. “What will the doctor likely do/say?”
Think about it — what is the doctor likely to say to you? Is there anything s/he can do for your child?
Chances are, if your child has a cough and a low fever, and is breathing and resting fine, s/he is going to say “Go home and let him/her rest.” In that case, there’s no need to go in. (Why bother if they’ll send you home to keep doing what you’re doing?)
They might also run a test or two — maybe a strep test if your child has a sore throat, or a flu test if your child has flu-like symptoms. Do you need a diagnosis to proceed?
They might also prescribe something to help. In that case, see question 2!
2. “If the doctor prescribes medication, will I want to use it?”
Does your child need medication at this point? In some cases, the answer is yes, or at least “maybe” (depending on diagnosis). If the doctor did prescribe something, would you want to use it, or would you want to wait it out?
If you’d prefer to wait a day or two longer before using medication, then maybe wait to call the doctor. If your child isn’t improving, you can always call later. Or, call their nurse line to ask about your child’s symptoms and if they think it’s worth a visit — this is usually free, and the nurses will usually talk to the doctor, so you can be sure of what you’re doing. And if your child does end up with an appointment, the doctor will already know what’s up because of your call.
3. “Is this something that would be difficult/dangerous to handle at home?”
Bottom line — can you handle this at home, and do you want to?
If your child is having trouble breathing, is lethargic, is unable to rest, seems to be really struggling — then an office visit is necessary. Maybe even the ER, depending on the severity of the symptoms. (Call your child’s pediatrician for advice about this — if you should bring the child is or just head to the ER.)
But if it isn’t serious at this point, can you handle it at home? Many parents feel like they need to call every time their child gets even a minor cold. You probably don’t. If your child is sniffling and has a 100 degree fever, but is able to rest and eat lightly, then they really don’t need any help (from the doctor). You can always call if it gets worse.
In our home, we start with an Epsom salt bath and lots of snuggling. As long as they can sleep, and as long as they’re acting “better” within a day or two, we do not call the doctor. We’ve had exactly two sick visits in 8 years of parenting 5 children, and in both cases, the doctors said “They’re fine, go home and let them rest.” (Nervous young mama in both cases!)
Really think through it before calling. Doctors are there for when you need them, but we don’t want to waste their time over truly minor things. Plus it’s easier on sick kids to stay in bed than be dragged out!
And as always, if there are serious symptoms, at least call the doctor and ask.