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How to Talk About Your Kid’s Symptoms When You Talk to the Pediatrician

Learning to explain your kid's symptoms is important because "my child has tummy pain" won't get you anywhere.

When a kid is sick, parents need to make a call. Can the family treat the illness at home, do they need to see a doctor, or go to the emergency room? Before making that call, though, there’s another call to be made: your pediatrician.

Coronavirus is offering up plenty of doubt to parents and given that doubt, it’s time to pick up the phone. “It’s always a good idea to call the child’s healthcare provider for advice,” says Michelle Terry, a general medicine physician at Seattle Children’s and a pediatrics professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine. “Conversation is best.” After business hours, offices usually have a doctor on call.

But when parents do finally reach the pediatricians by phone or telemedicine, the hard part begins. Conveying information is pretty tough when your source is, well, a kid. So how do you translate your child’s symptoms and communicate them to a doctor in a way that’s accurate and useful? Start by keeping some basic medical terms on hand, asking the right questions, and coming in with an informed hunch and an open mind. Here’s your guide.

Stomach Ache in Kids (“My tummy hurts.”) 

Terms to Know

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  • Generalized pain: Over half of the belly hurts.
  • Localized pain: Only one part of the belly hurts.
  • Recurrent pain: More than three different complaints of stomach pain within three months.
  • Colicky pain: Comes and goes in sudden waves.
  • Cramping: Sudden, tight tummy pain.

“Daddy, my tummy hurts.” This entreaty is likely all your going to get out of your kid. In babies, one of the only signs could be crying and knees tucked to the chest. It happens often with kids and in most cases stomach pain is harmless — caused simply by hunger, mild constipation, or by jabbing themselves playing with a lightsaber. However, it can also be a signal that a child needs emergency medical treatment. 

Questions to Ask The Kids

Ask these questions, translate their answers, and pass them to your pediatrician. 

  • Where is the pain?
  • How bad does it hurt?
  • Do you feel like you’re going to throw up?
  • How long has it hurt for?
  • Does anything else hurt?

 Questions to Ask Yourself

Are they pooping?
If a child with stomach pain poops less than twice a week and their stools are hard, dry, or lumpy, constipation may be the culprit.

Do they have diarrhea or are they vomiting?
Sudden vomiting and diarrhea could mean a child has a virus. They may also have food poisoning, which usually clears up in less than a day, but you should watch out for dehydration.

Is the pain in the lower stomach?
If pain is centered in the lower stomach, the child may have a bladder infection, which can also cause urgency, bad-smelling pee, and painful urination.

Is there blood in the stool?
Blood in the stool is usually caused by constipation. However, it could be a clue for a serious infection or intestinal issues.

Worst Cases:

  • If the child is less than a year old, they may have an intestinal condition called volvulus. Other symptoms include vomiting green bile, nausea, distended abdomen, bloody poop, and constipation. An infant with volvulus may draw their legs toward their chest in pain, act sleepy, and have a rapid heart rate and breathing.
  •  Between the ages of 6 months and 2 years, severe stomach pain that comes and goes is a clue for the life-threatening condition intussusception, in which one section of the bowels collapses inward like a telescope. The child may vomit, grunt in pain, and have a swollen stomach and currant jelly stool. Parents should call a doctor immediately if they suspect their child has intussusception.
  •  Most common in kids and young adults aged 5 to 20, appendicitis is a serious infection of the appendix. If stomach pain starts near the belly button and moves to the lower right side of the stomach, the child could have this condition. After the pain appears, children may experience nausea, vomiting, low appetite, and low-grade fever. Parents should call a doctor immediately if they suspect their child has appendicitis.

Kids Sore Throat (“My throat hurts.”)

Key Terms to Know:

  • Post-nasal drip: Mucus drips from the nose down the back of the throat, often due to allergies, viruses, and sinus infections. Post-nasal drip is one cause of sore throats.

“My throat hurts” usually doesn’t require too much more exploration. Sore throats are often caused by colds and after 24 hours, a child often develops a runny nose and coughs as well. However, some viruses cause a sore throat without other symptoms. Children who cannot talk, refuse to eat or drink, or cry while being fed may all have sore throats.

Questions to Ask Yourself

Are they exhibiting stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, or a fever?
If a child has a sore throat with symptoms such as stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, fever, headache, and a red sandpaper-like rash, they may have Strep throat. This condition is most common between ages 5 and 15.

Are they having trouble swallowing?
Trouble swallowing can be chronic or can come on suddenly and can happen with or without a sore throat. It has many potential causes and requires an immediate call to the doctor.

Are they dehydrated?
If the child hasn’t peed in more than 8 hours, or has dark urine and a dry mouth, a call to the doctor is in order.

Can they open their mouth all the way?
If the answer is no, they could have a tonsillar abscess (see below). 

Worst Cases:

  • Symptoms of sore throat, drooling, spitting, and fever could be due to epiglottis, a serious infection that can block the flow of air to the lungs and requires emergency treatment.
  • Trouble swallowing, pain on one side of the throat, and fever could point to a tonsillar abscess, a serious infection that spreads behind the tonsils and is most common in teenagers.

Chest Pain in Kids (“My chest hurts.”)

 Terms to Know:

  • Upper respiratory tract: Includes the nose, mouth, throat, and voice box.
  • Wheezing: High-pitched sound that may accompany difficult breathing.

“Chest pain in middle-aged adults is very different than chest pain in, say, school-aged children,” Terry says. In youth, chest pain usually is not related to the heart and is instead due to upper respiratory issues. Kids with asthma may have a tight chest that they refer to as chest pain. Children may also experience chest pain from coughing, whether as a result of asthma or a cold.

Questions to Ask The Kids
Ask them, log their answers, and let your pediatrician know. 

  • How long does the pain last?
  • Where, exactly, is the pain? 

Questions to Ask Yourself

Did they drink any coffee or energy drinks?
Caffeine can cause rapid heart beat, which kids may report as chest pain.

Are they wincing from pain during movement?
If chest pain is recurrent and lasts only a few seconds or minutes at a time, the cause could be muscle cramps. If the pain increases when a child moves their shoulders, they may have overused their muscles.

Worst Cases: 

  • If a child can hardly speak or cry because of tight breath, if they are wheezing, if they are breathing much faster than usual, or if their face or lips take on a blue tint, a parent should call a doctor immediately.
  • Burning pain in the middle of the chest near the breastbone and in the middle of the stomach could be due to heartburn. In tweens and teens over the age of 12, recurrent heartburn with symptoms such as bad breath, nausea, vomiting, and painful swallowing can indicate the chronic condition gastroesophageal reflux disease.

Aches and Pains (“I hurt all over.”)

Terms to Know:

  • Growing pain: Harmless pain in the calves or thighs that usually lasts 10 to 30 minutes, occurs on both sides of the body, and appears late in the day.
  • Chronic pain: Hurts for a long time, usually longer than three months.
  • Acute pain: Only hurts for a short time, usually less than three months.
  • Dull pain: Low-level pain that lasts over time.
  • Throbbing pain: Recurrent low levels of pain.
  • Sharp pain: Severe stabs of pain.
  • Jaundice: Yellowish coloring of the eyes and skin.

Aches and pains are often tricky to diagnose because they’re tough for your kid to pinpoint. They can be caused by muscle overuse, cramps, and viruses, but they can also easily be signs of more serious conditions. 

Questions to Ask The Kids
Ask them, log their answers, and let your pediatrician know. 

  • What does the pain feel like? Is the pain stabbing, or is it weaker? Does it come and go? 
  • How long have you been in pain?
  • Does it hurt to pee?
  • Where does it hurt? (Point to all spots)

Questions to Ask Yourself

Are they active?
If a child can and wants to participate in daily activities, their pain is probably not severe.

Are they off?
If a child is acting oddly, a call to the doctor may be in order. Flares of joint pain, swelling, fever, and stiffness that interfere with daily activities could be a sign of juvenile arthritis.

Did they wet the bed or are they spending a lot of time in the bathroom?
Painful urination, bedwetting, and urgency and could be signs of a bladder or kidney infection, or the symptoms could be related to an issue with the genitals.

Worst Cases: 

  • If a child has can’t touch their chin to their chest or has a headache, confusion, and fever, they could have a serious condition called meningitis. Meningitis can make younger children sleepy and irritable, and babies may have jaundice and be weak at sucking. Parents should call a doctor immediately if they suspect that their child has meningitis.
  • If a child feels pain to one side of the back in the middle, the cause could be a kidney infection if the child also has a fever and painful urination, or a kidney stone if they have severe pain in the lower stomach and blood in the urine. Both conditions are serious. 

Fevers

 Terms to Know:

  • Fever: Temperature of at least 100.4° F taken by rectum, 100° F by mouth, or 99° F by armpit.

Most children who report feeling sick and are warm to the touch are not actually feverish. The cold, flu, and other viruses are the most common causes of fevers, but fevers can also accompany serious conditions such as meningitis.

Questions to Ask Yourself

How old are they?
In children under 3 months of age, fevers require immediate medical attention.

Are they engaging in normal activities?
The child’s behavior is usually more important than the number on the thermometer.

Are there spots on their chest?
Between the ages of 6 months and 3 years, most children contract a viral infection called Roseola, which causes a fever that lasts 2 to 3 days. After the fever disappears, small pink spots on the chest and stomach may appear and spread to the face.

Worst Case: 

  • If the fever is above 104°F or if the child has been shivering with chills for over a half-hour, call the doctor. However, only fevers above 108°F can cause brain damage, and body temperatures usually only climb this high if a child has been left in a very hot area, such as inside a car in the summer.