Parental pop quiz: your kid comes home from school with a stomachache — do you limit their Flamin’ Hot Cheetos intake or head straight to the pediatrician’s office?
Being a parent is anything but easy, but trying to treat your child’s mysterious aches and pains can be particularly tricky; especially since kids seem to get sick so often, thanks to a developing immune system and an insatiable curiosity about the surrounding world. As author Mary Ruebush writes in her book, Why Dirt Is Good, “What a child is doing when he puts things in his mouth is allowing his immune response to explore his environment. Not only does this allow for ‘practice’ of immune responses, which will be necessary for protection, but it also plays a critical role in teaching the immature immune response what is best ignored.”
While this kind of exploration is necessary and important, it means kids can get sick a lot and it can be tough to know how to distinguish run-of-the-mill symptoms from something serious. We asked our pediatric specialists to break down how parents can handle five of the most common kid complaints:
1. Headaches – Sara Huberman, a San Francisco doctor
“Children of all ages can have headaches — sometimes they’re related to an illness, like a cold or stomach bug, and sometimes they’re not. Most of the time, they’re mild and will resolve by making changes in your child’s daily routine since they can commonly be triggered by dehydration, too little sleep, skipped meals or snacks, or too much stress. Sometimes, if a child needs glasses, they can even get a headache from eye strain, and they may be more prone to developing migraines, even at a young age, if someone in the family gets them.
Keeping a headache diary can help guide your child’s provider in figuring out what type of headache they have and what may be triggering them. Diaries can track the timing of headaches and include additional symptoms like a runny nose, nausea, or dizziness, and associated activities and foods eaten prior to the headache onset. There are also a few red flags you can monitor for: headaches that worsen in intensity or frequency, interfere with normal play or activity, wake a child up from sleep, or cause change in mood or behavior. It’s a very low probability that headaches without any other symptoms are due to something dangerous, but any child who starts having them should be seen by their doctor.”
2. Dizziness – Penelope Hsu, a New York MD
“A lot of teen girls complain of dizziness or have near-syncope [near-fainting] symptoms in the heat. I would say 90 percent of them are dehydrated; most teens just don’t drink enough water. So I suggest all my teens to drink at least two liters of fluid a day. When I find that they are dehydrated, I also suggest they eat salty things like nuts and pretzels–the salt will help retain the fluid.”
3. Rashes – Yasmin Nibbe, a San Francisco MD
“Rashes are common in children of all ages and are a very common reason for parents to bring their child in to see their pediatrician. Some rashes can be easily diagnosed by hearing the story of how the rash occurred, where it started, and how it’s progressed, and also by recognizing the pattern of the rash. The One Medical mobile app is a great place to start getting help for a rash, as many can be treated simply. But a rash that’s associated with a fever should be taken seriously and most often will require an in-office visit. Of course, if you see a rash that you feel is concerning, we’d always like to hear from you!”
4. Constipation – Jody Ullom, a San Rafael MD
“The most common cause of abdominal pain in kids is constipation. There are many reasons for this: not enough water intake, too many empty starch calories (Goldfish, white bread, crackers, etc.) and not enough fruits, vegetables, and fiber, and rushing from one activity to the next and not leaving enough time to use the bathroom. A family history of “slow intestinal transit” also contributes.
I think it’s always helpful to discuss this with your pediatrician — we have years of dealing with these issues and can offer many helpful ideas and treatment alternatives. The red flags of abdominal pain are pain that wakes your child at night, pain that takes them away from fun activities, and abdominal pain with fevers — call your doctor if any of those develop to see if your child needs to be seen sooner.”
5. Cough – Sarit Shtivelman, an Oakland MD
“After a regular cold or upper respiratory infection, some children can have a cough that lingers for up to three weeks. Some chronic coughs are really just back-to-back colds — it’s normal for children to have up to eight colds a year.
A cough can be very worrisome, but often just by discussing the sounds and patterns and performing a careful exam, your child’s doctor can find the cause.
Allergies are also a common cause for chronic coughs but can be tricky because children who are allergic to pollens and grasses will cough more outdoors, while others who are allergic to indoor allergens will cough more around nighttime.
If your child coughs when they’re playing hard and running or doing sports, this could be from asthma or an exercise-induced cough, and a cough that’s worse after meals or when lying flat can mean acid reflux.
It’s also not uncommon for children to have spells of a “habit cough” which is usually very loud, and comes in single, honking sounds. You can really tell this one apart from other causes of cough if your child never coughs in their sleep, or coughs less when they’re distracted.
If your child’s cough fits one of these scenarios, or if it just seems outside of what’s expected for a normal cold, an office visit is the best way to diagnose the cause and choose the best management.”