Childhood illnesses
Mother & Child

The 10 Most Common Children’s Symptoms and Their Treatment

Here are the 10 most common childhood symptoms and their treatment.

1. Bilious attacks, vomiting

Vomiting is a very common symptom that occurs in many conditions. Sometimes the underlying condition may be a serious one, but mostly this is not so. How can the parents decide the answer to this question when their child is vomiting?

Some simple rules:

  • Most babies vomit occasionally.
    • If the vomiting is not persistent, the baby is quite happy and there is no fever, diarrhea, tummy pain, or weight loss there is probably very little reason for the parents to worry.
    • If the vomiting is forceful and spurts out, (which is called “projectile vomiting”) it is sometimes a sign of blockage at the lower end of the stomach (pylorus). These babies are usually contented, but are always hungry and tend to lose weight. For this type of vomiting, you must definitely seek your doctor’s advice.
  • With children, occasional vomiting is most probably nothing to worry about. However, you would be wise to seek medical advice if vomiting is associated with one or more of the following:
    • a raised temperature
    • abdominal pain
    • diarrhea or severe constipation
    • general ill-health
    • headache


  • keep the child quiet and resting;
  • give small quantities of glucose fluids or flat lemonade at frequent intervals;
  • don’t give any solid food for 12 hours after a vomiting attack has ceased.

If the vomiting persists or recurs call your doctor. It may signify a more serious underlying medical problem. It is most important that the underlying cause of persistent vomiting is always found and the condition corrected.

2. Burns and scalds

These are the most preventable of all household accidents. Burns and scalds are often classified according to the severity of the injury as follows:

  • first-degree burns: redness of the skin only without blistering;
  • second-degree burns: redness of the skin together with some blistering – the blisters may be broken;
  • third-degree burns: severe blistering and damage to underlying tissues, for example, fat or muscle.

The seriousness of any burn will also depend on the area that is burnt, and the age of the child. Babies are especially at risk for severe burns. It may be comforting to know that first and second-degree burns will heal without scarring.


    • If only a small area is involved apply a cold compress for a few minutes and then apply a soothing cream. The burnt area may later be covered with a bandage. To make a cold compress place blocks of ice into a plastic bag and apply directly to the burn. Alternatively, use cold water from the tap immediately after the accident.
    • Do not apply a cold compress to any area of broken skin.
    • Soothing creams will ease the pain.
    • Keep the child warm and give fluids.
    • The main danger in all but first degree burns is infection. This will follow any contamination of the burnt area and may occur at any time until complete healing has taken place.
    • If in doubt, seek medical advice and the doctor will apply a sterile dressing.
    • Seek immediate medical care as this injury is a serious one.
    • Never attempt to remove clothing from the area of a severe burn and avoid the use of any dressings which may stick to the injured area. These dressings will only have to be removed when the child is seen by the doctor and this causes unnecessary pain and distress. Clean dry linen is useful if a first-aid dressing is required.

3. Choking

Accidents that involve choking need never happen. They can certainly be reduced by following a few simple precautions in the home.

  • Don’t trust young children with any small object.
  • Before allowing the baby to crawl on the floor, clear away all small objects.
  • Remove all sewing baskets from the reach of children.
  • Don’t let your child eat peanuts until he is at least five years old.
  • If any small child has a sudden fit of choking you must suspect that a small object may be blocking the air passages.
  • If this happens hold the child upside down by the ankles so that gravity will assist in expelling any object which may have been accidentally inhaled.
  • Always have a child who has choked checked by a doctor – the object is usually swallowed, but it may also go into the air passages of the lungs on occasions.
  • Most objects that are swallowed will eventually be passed spontaneously through the bowel. However small foreign objects that are accidentally inhaled into the air passages will require removal in the hospital in all cases. If not removed immediately, the consequences of an inhaled object are very serious indeed.

4. Convulsions and fits

This emergency is characterized by sudden onset, jerking of the limbs, and a short period of unconsciousness.

To onlookers and especially parents a convulsion is usually an alarming event. However, the patient is often unaware of the experience which seldom has serious consequences.

A typical convulsion may be described as follows.

Occasionally at the start of a convulsion, the child may cry out. Then the eyes turn upward and the body becomes rigid. The child then becomes unconscious and the arms and legs (occasionally only the arm and leg on one side) will begin to jerk in a rhythmic fashion. The attack may last from only a few seconds to many minutes.

During the attack, the child may turn blue, and the tongue may be bitten. Urine may be passed spontaneously.


Febrile convulsions – these occur in some susceptible children whenever they develop a high temperature.

Epileptic fits – this condition is usually recurrent and not necessarily associated with fever. It requires a full investigation by your doctor.


  • Protect the child from injuring itself during the convulsion.
  • Insert a padded spoon handle or wooden peg between the teeth to avoid injury to the tongue.
  • Ensure the airway is clear – pull the tongue forward if necessary so the child can breathe freely.
  • Treat any fever that may be present.
  • Seek immediate medical attention.

5. Cough

coughing is one of the most common complaints in the family and varies in importance quite considerably.

It must always be remembered that coughing is only a symptom. There will be some underlying cause and it may be necessary for your family doctor to see the child in order to diagnose the reason.

There are many medical conditions accompanied by a cough such as:

  • a common cold or influenza
  • croup
  • bronchitis
  • pneumonia
  • whooping cough
  • asthma and certain allergies
  • measles
  • emotional upsets

There are large numbers of proprietary medicines that can be freely bought from your family chemist. In minor conditions, these can be of benefit, and maybe all that is needed to ensure an undisturbed night.

With the possible exception of the cough that occurs with most common colds, your family doctor should see any child who has a persistent cough, even if the child does not seem ill.

You should certainly seek advice from your doctor in the following situations:

  • if there is fever and the child is sick;
  • when breathing is noisy;
  • when breathing is faster than usual;
  • when the cough prevents sleep;
  • if the cough is persistent or recurs;
  • if the material coughed up is colored – for example, yellow or green phlegm means pus, red phlegm means blood;
  • if the child is unwell and losing weight.

The cough medicines which are freely available fall into two categories:

  • cough suppressants: usually in the form of a syrup or linctus which helps ease or even stop the cough.
  • expectorants: these are usually medicines taken with water which help to loosen and bring up phlegm from the air passages and lungs.

Your family doctor is the best person to decide on the most appropriate cough medicine. It is sometimes wrong to suppress a cough.

It is most important to diagnose the cause of the cough. The following is a guide to the common causes of coughing in children.

CROUP: this is really a serious condition that often requires urgent medical attention. The cough is hard like the bark of a dog. Some people describe it as being similar to a foghorn. Often the child goes to bed with a snuffy nose and wakes in the early hours of the morning with noisy breathing, a husky voice, and the harsh, barking cough. There is a “crowing” sound each time the child takes a breath.

BRONCHITIS: this is usually a frequent irritating cough and one can often hear a “wheezing” in the chest. Later on, the cough will produce phlegm or mucous. There is often rapid breathing and there may be an associated fever.

WHOOPING COUGH: fortunately this illness is now far less common than it once was. The cough is most distressing and comes in characteristic “spasms” when one cough follows another so rapidly that the child is unable to draw a proper breath. The child may even go blue during the spasm but eventually is able to breathe in, and in so doing produces the sound of a “whoop.” Another bout will occur after an interval. Frequently there will be vomiting after a severe spasm of coughing.

ASTHMA: here the cough is usually frequent, irritating, and dry. Breathing is usually accompanied by a musical wheeze especially when the child is breathing out.


  • Keep the child indoors in an evenly warm atmosphere, especially during the night.
  • Dress the child adequately so that all parts of the body are kept pleasantly warm.
  • Offer a light diet with plenty of fluids.
  • Aspirin or paracetamol may be given strictly according to instructions if the temperature is raised.
  • Keep the nose clean. Nose drops may be used, but only for a few days at most.
  • Seek your doctor’s advice if you are worried about the severity of the symptoms.

6. Diarrhea

Diarrhea or frequent loose bowel motions may be caused by:

  • viral and bacterial infections
  • certain prescribed drugs
  • incorrect diet

The real danger of severe diarrhea, especially in babies, is dehydration due to a loss of fluid and electrolytes (salts). If diarrhea is associated with vomiting the danger of dehydration is increased.


  • Replace lost fluid – this is always of the utmost importance in all cases. (A useful preparation to make up is as follows: add 1 tablespoon of sugar and ½ teaspoon of salt to 1 pint of boiled water. Flat lemonade is also used.)
    • Give small quantities frequently – the amount depending on the age of the patient – even only for 24 hours and it is generally advisable not to give milk.
    • If the diarrhea settles, continue with fluids for another 24 hours, gradually adding dry toast, biscuits, and peeled grated apples to the diet.
    • Slowly bring the child back onto a normal diet. Should the diarrhea not settle after 48 hours see your doctor and take a specimen of feces with you. (A suitable container can be obtained from your doctor’s surgery.)
  • Medication – many preparations are freely available to relieve diarrhea.
    • “Thickening” agents: ask your chemist which would be the most suitable.
    • Codeine preparations: these should be used only on the advice of your doctor.
  • Always seek advice from your family doctor in the following circumstances:
    • should the diarrhea persist longer than 48 hours;
    • if blood appears in the bowel actions;
    • if there is associated with persistent vomiting;
    • if there is an associated high fever.

7. Earache

Pain in the ear is a common symptom during childhood.

Severe earache is usually due to an infection in the middle ear. This arises as a complication of a common cold when the Eustachian tube, which runs from the back of the nose to the middle ear, becomes blocked. Fluid builds up a pressure in the middle ear which stretches the drum and may cause severe pain.

Severe earache may also result from conditions that are related to the outer ear.

Infection – e.g. swimmer’s ear, boils, or other infections of the ear canal.

Foreign bodies in the ear, such as insects or excessive build-up of wax.


  • Aspirin or paracetamol for relief of pain, strictly according to instructions.
  • Slightly warmed oil such as olive oil may be dropped into the ear. This will ease the pain but will not cure the underlying cause.
  • Apply warmth to the ear and side of the head with a scarf or hot water bottle.
  • If the nose happens to be blocked use nose drops. This will help to unblock the Eustachian tube.

Always seek medical advice:

  • if the earache is severe and persistent, or if it recurs over 24 hours;
  • if there is any discharge from the ear canal;
  • if there is a high temperature associated with an earache.

To protect hearing:

  • don’t blow nose too hard;
  • don’t put small objects in ears;
  • don’t put drops or ointments in a discharging ear;
  • don’t attempt to remove foreign bodies from the ear with a match or a hair-pin;
  • don’t dive deeply or swim underwater when suffering from a cold.

8. Eye conditions

Some important points for parents to remember.

  • If you have any reason to suspect that your child has a squint (turned eye or lazy eye) seek medical advice. Don’t delay as most cases are correctable if detected early. The earlier the detection the more certain the cure.
  • Never cover up an eye that is discharging pus.
  • Acute conjunctivitis which is an inflammation of the lining of the eyelids is an infectious condition that normally affects both eyes.
  • Always beware if only one eye is painful or red. This may not be conjunctivitis. It could be an ulcer, a foreign body, or a more serious condition of the eye which could possibly place the sight of the affected eye in jeopardy.
  • A persistently discharging or watering eye in a baby is often due to a blocked tear duct. Usually, the eye is not red or painful in this condition.
  • If a child gets a blow over the eye always seek medical attention. Bleeding may occur behind the eye without external evidence of damage.
  • If you have any doubts about your child’s vision seek medical advice. This is a matter of urgency.
  • To save vision it is vitally important to observe these simple rules.

9. Fever

Fever may be defined as a raised body temperature (“He’s hot.”). This may sometimes be detected by feeling the skin or by the use of a thermometer (normal temperature – 37 degrees C, 98.4F).

Fever is most often a reaction by the body to a common virus infection and is frequently accompanied by other symptoms such as:

  • headache
  • vomiting
  • aching joints and muscles
  • sore throat and cough
  • running nose


  • Allow the body to cool down:
    • remove excess clothes and bedclothes;
    • offer cool drinks and ice blocks;
    • provide tepid (lukewarm) bathings;
    • keep the child in a ventilated room.
  • Medications – the following drugs are often useful:
    • aspirin
    • paracetamol

Whichever is used, it must be taken only in accordance with instructions on the packet, or as directed by your doctor.

If the fever responds to these measures and does not recur, the illness is probably a trivial one and recovery will be rapid. However if the fever persists, or should it recur after 24 hours, contact your doctor.

10. Nose bleeds or epistaxis

A nose bleed most likely arises from a small blood vessel near the front of the nose, usually on one or the other side of the nasal septum.

There are several possible causes:

  • spontaneous bleeding in the healthy person which may sometimes be precipitated by hot weather;
  • bleeding following a blow to the nose; the nose may or may not be broken;
  • bleeding due to colds and infection in the nose, often precipitated by sneezing;
  • bleeding in patients with blood disorders.

Nose bleeding is often controlled by quite simple measures:

  • keep the child in a sitting position and squeeze the soft part of the nose between the thumb and forefinger for 5 to 10 minutes without letting go; breathing through the open mouth will be required during this maneuver;
  • apply a cold compress to the bridge of the nose.

If this fails, seek advice from your doctor. It may be necessary to plug the nose with a ribbon of gauze to prevent undue loss of blood.

If the bleeding stops with this treatment you must then decide whether to visit your family doctor.

This will often be desirable for the following reasons:

  • if the bleeding was quite large, the child may be anemic and require some iron medication to restore the blood level to normal;
  • if the condition recurs several times, the doctor may help you prevent further bleeding;
  • the doctor will be able to check your child for other possible causes of nose bleeding, such as blood disorders.
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