Symptoms like abdominal pain, weight loss or fever could signal something more serious.
Most parents wear lots of hats: chef, chauffeur, maid and even "Doctor" Mom or Dad when kids are sick. Most times, common symptoms like a sore throat don’t warrant a trip but to the doctor. Other times, however, common symptoms like fever could signal something more serious in your child. How can parents know the difference?
“Really listen to your child and try writing it down so you can see if there are patterns happening,” says Katrina Iverson, MD, of Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center in Denver, Colorado.
And if you’re not sure whether or not your child’s symptoms are severe, it’s best to call the pediatrician’s advice line or schedule an appointment.
Here are five common symptoms you should watch out for, and what prolonged pain or discomfort can mean.
Prolonged abdominal pain
Prolonged abdominal pain may sometimes mean problems with constipation or gas, but that’s not always the case. “I wouldn’t say you have to necessarily rush to the hospital the very second your child tells you they have abdominal pain, but there are certain things to watch for,” says Dr. Iverson.
The abdomen is a large cavity in the body housing the majority of the digestive system like the stomach and intestines. If your child’s pain occurs further from the center of the abdomen or if the pain is continuous or progressive, then it could be a more serious issue. Most of the time, abdominal pain will come and go, lasting only a few minutes and less severe.
“Something to keep in mind is that if they’re complaining about left-sided belly pains, it’s usually constipation,” says Iverson.
If the pain continues, it could be something more serious than constipation or lactose intolerance. “Re-check with your child throughout 24 to 48 hours to see what’s happening with their abdominal pain,” says Iverson. Abdominal pain could also be:
- Stomach ulcers
- Urinary tract infection
If you are unsure if your child’s prolonged abdominal pain is constipation or gas, feel free to call your pediatrician for an appointment, contact our nurse advice line (at right) or learn more about when to go to the ER for abdominal pain.
Unintentional weight loss
While casual weight loss is normal, unintentional weight loss is not. Rapid weight loss is when an individual loses five percent of their normal body weight in six to 12 months.
“In younger kids, we are always looking out for diabetes when it comes to severe weight loss, but for older kids, like teenagers, we think about eating disorders, depression and drug use,” says Iverson.
Around 20 percent of teenagers experience depression by the time they reach 18, with weight loss being a symptom. If you notice your child losing weight at rapid pace, about one to two pounds a week, contact your pediatrician. Unintentional or rapid weight loss can also point to symptoms such as:
- Cancers such as leukemia or neuroblastoma
- Problems with medications
- Psychological disorders like anxiety or ADHD
- Lung, kidney and hormonal diseases
It’s normal for children to gain weight as they grow and develop—in fact, kids should gain four to seven pounds a year until puberty starts. But if they don’t, it may be best to schedule an appointment with your pediatrician.
Hearing loss is most commonly hereditary, and is detected relatively early because of screening, says Iverson. While hearing loss is typically diagnosed early on, it is possible for a child to lose their hearing later in life.
If your child is experience multiple ear infections, five or six a year, it can lead to complications and may mean a trip to your pediatrician. “Multiple ear infections can scar the tympanic membrane and cause some hearing issues, like conductive or sensorineural hearing loss, later on down the road,” says Iverson.
If medications and precautions, like monitoring noise levels in headphones, are not working, your child may have fluid in their middle ear. Talk to your child’s pediatrician about treatments like hearing aids, removing ear wax or surgery to help remedy signs of hearing loss. Other reasons for temporary or long-term hearing loss include:
- Genetic hearing loss such as Usher syndrome or Pendred syndrome
- Antibiotics or antimalarial drugs
“If you feel like your child’s not responding properly, and that it’s not just selective hearing, it’s definitely a good idea to have your child evaluated,” says Iverson. The sooner the issue is addressed, the sooner the issue can be treated.
Rapid hair loss
On average, people lose 50 to 100 hairs a day, but if your child is losing hair faster than it’s being replaced, there could be something else going on. Rapid hair loss could be related to genetics or even conditions like a high fever or a ringworm infection, but there are other reasons your child could be experiencing hair loss too:
- Trauma to the scalp such as tight braids or pony tails
- Chemotherapy and blood thinners
- Alopecia areata, an immune system disease causing hair loss
- Autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes, celiac disease and also trichotillomania, where people habitually pull out their hair. It can be related to anxiety in kids. They may do it secretly, and it can lead to bald spots.
“Some kids end up losing all of the hair on their whole body, for others it comes and goes throughout their lives,” says Iverson. If your child is experiencing any form of hair loss where hair falls in clumps, consider taking a trip to your pediatrician to address the issue.
When a child spikes a fever, it causes their heart and respiratory rates to go up, but those rates usually go down shortly after.
“A fever is one of the things that most parents get really scared about, but a fever is just the body’s way of fighting infection,” says Iverson. A normal body temperature varies from 96.5 to 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, but anything higher than 100.4 is considered a fever, according to Iverson. Every temperature will vary and can even be normal if the fever only lasts around 48 hours.
If a child’s temperature continues to go up even after medication or treatment, bring them to the pediatrician or learn when to take them to the emergency room for a fever.
Extended fevers could point to other conditions such as:
- Minor illnesses like a cold or strep throat
- Bacterial and viral infections like urinary tract infections or upper respiratory infections
- Gastrointestinal diseases like Crohn’s disease or irritable bowel syndrome
When in doubt, bring up your concerns to your child’s pediatrician. If it is something more serious, an early diagnosis may help your child recover sooner.