How to Treat a Sick Toddler
|Expert Reviewed||Dr. Charles Shubin, M.D. and Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics|
How Can I Help My Toddler's Health?
Toddlers have amazing little health cycles: One minute they're happy and playing, and the next minute they're sick with a stomach virus or a terrible cough.
A toddler seems to get ill suddenly, showing all of the signs and symptoms of a sickness within minutes. How can you treat a child so young? When should you call the doctor? Learn how to treat your toddler when he or she becomes ill.
What You Can Expect to Learn
- How Do I Know If My Toddler Is Sick?
- Is My Toddler's Temperature Normal?
- Fever in Toddlers
- Cold Remedies for Toddlers
- Does My Child Have Whooping Cough?
- Does My Toddler Have Strep Throat?
- Signs of Dehydration in Toddlers
- Stomach Virus in Toddlers
- Treatment for the Flu
- How to Keep Toddlers Healthy
Here you'll find remedies for the common cold, stomach virus, fevers, and the flu that are appropriate for children four years of age and younger.
How Do I Know if My Toddler is Sick?
First things first: do you know how to communicate with your toddler about an illness? Toddlers, especially those only one or two years of age, may not have the ability to tell you what is wrong with them when they are sick. How do you know then how to treat your toddler?
Most of the time, you need to be aware of your child's behavior and normal routine. Any sudden change in his or her behavior, such as being cranky or unpleasant, could be a sign that your child is ill. Also, be on the lookout for:
- Excess sleepiness
- Not wanting to play
- Not wanting to eat
- Crying after eating or drinking
- Changes in urine or stool output
- Changes in skin coloring (rosy cheeks, pale face, etc.)
These could all be signs that your child is suffering with an illness.
Of course, if your child is able to speak with words or short sentences, ask what is wrong or ask where in their body it hurts. For example, my daughter, at the age of two, is able to say "Ouch" and point to her stomach or head when she is not feeling well.
Is My Toddler's Temperature Normal?
When you feel your child's forehead by hand and have a gut feeling that it's higher than normal, what should you do? Here's how to know whether you should stop worrying about it or be concerned.
What Is a Normal Temperature?
A normal body temperature varies based on where you take it.
- Orally: When you take the temperature in your child's mouth, a normal temperature is 98.6°F (37°C)
- Rectally: When you take the temperature in your child's bottom, a normal temperature reading is 99.6°F (37.5°C)
How to Take Your Toddler's Temperature
1. Rectal Temperature-Taking Process
- Lay your toddler with their belly facing the floor and their body across your lap.
- Coat the thermometer tip with petroleum jelly.
- Insert it about half an inch into the rectum. Stop if you feel any resistance.
- Hold the thermometer still (try not to jostle it) and don't let go of it.
- When the thermometer beeps, remove it to check the digital reading.
2. Oral Temperature-Taking Process
- Place the end of the thermometer under your toddler's tongue. It should be towards the back of their mouth.
- Have them close their lips on the thermometer. Remind them not to bite down on it or to talk while the thermometer is reading the temperature.
- When the thermometer beeps, remove it to check the digital reading.
Tips for Taking Your Toddler's Temperature
- Try to measure it rectally. The most accurate reading is done this way.
- Use a digital thermometer, not a mercury thermometer.
Label the rectal thermometer so you don't accidentally use it in your child’s mouth.
- Disinfect the thermometer in lukewarm, soapy water. Rinse it well with water that is cool to the touch before taking their temperature.
- Never leave your child alone while using the thermometer.
- Keep their temperature consistent. Don’t bundle your toddler up too much before taking his or her temperature. Don’t take their temperature right after they took a bath.
- After you’re done using a thermometer, clean it with rubbing alcohol or wash it in cool, soapy water.
How Do I Know If My Child Has A Fever?
Your toddler has a fever when their oral temperature is above 99.5°F (37.5°C) or their rectal temperature above 100.4°F (38°C).
How Can I Treat My Child’s Fever?
If your toddler has a fever, it's a sign that their body is fighting germs that cause infections.
- Medicine: If your child is younger than three years old with a low-grade fever (up to 102°F), avoid giving them medicine. If your child is fussy and has a temperature above 102°F, medicine may be a good option.
When Should I Call the Doctor?
Call the Doctor?
Child shows other worrisome symptoms
Fever reduces with medicine and doesn't last more than 2 days
Fever in Toddlers
A fever is defined as a spike in body temperature that indicates that the body is fighting some type of infection. Not all fevers are serious. With toddlers, most fevers are actually harmless and go away on their own.
The normal body temperature for most people is around 98.6°F. Any fluctuation could be a fever. For toddlers, a fever between 99°F and 101°F is typically nothing to be alarmed with and can be treated with good rest, plenty of fluids, and a lukewarm bath.
Once a toddler's fever spikes to about 102°F, it's time to worry a bit. At that point, it's safe to give your child the correct dosage of acetaminophen for his/her age and then monitor your child to see if the fever reduces. If the fever continues to increase despite the medicine or other actions you've taken, call the doctor.
With any fever, be on the lookout for extra symptoms that could accompany the fever, such as:
- Runny nose
- Sore throat
- Stiff neck
- Pain when urinating
These symptoms, along with fever, could point to other illnesses: strep throat, the flu, a urinary tract infection, or other infections. Be sure to tell your doctor if you notice any of these symptoms along with a fever.
Cold Remedies for Toddlers
A common cold can be defined as having the sniffles from a runny or stuffy nose, a cough, itchy or scratchy throat, congestion in the sinuses, watery eyes, sleepiness, and a low-grade fever. For a toddler, these symptoms could be relatively minor and cause no major disruption in the day. At night, however, your toddler may experience more discomfort as he or she is laying down trying to sleep.
Here are some remedies for the common cold:
Make sure your toddler is getting enough fluids during the day. It will help all of the secretions from the nasal passages and sinuses to stay thin so that they continue to come out without causing excess congestion.
2. A Dose of Acetaminophen
If your toddler has a low-grade fever or is achy, you can give a dose of acetaminophen to help with the fever or pain. Many over-the-counter medicines such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and naproxen can lower a fever and relieve aches. Make sure to ask your doctor what is the best option to choose. Just make sure not to give your toddler aspirin.
- Make sure not to double dose! Read the medicine labels carefully to make sure that you don't accidentally give multiple doses of acetaminophen. Many cold medicines contain both a fever and pain reliever, and double dosing can be dangerous for your toddler.
Talk to your pediatrician before you give any over-the-counter medicine to a child under age 4.
Don’t give more than five doses in one day.
- Use a special liquid measuring device to make sure you give the right dose of medicine. You can get one at your drug store or ask your pharmacist. An ordinary teaspoon may not hold the right amount of medicine.
3. Humidify the Room
A cool mist humidifier in the bedroom at night is great for keeping the air moist to help your child breathe better. A warm, dry, stuffy room makes breathing more difficult as it can make congestion worse.
4. Appease the Sore Throat
Having to deal with a sore or scratchy throat is no fun for an adult, let alone a toddler! Here are a few ways to soothe their throat.
- Offer honey for a scratchy throat. Honey is a natural remedy to soothe a sore throat. It gently coats the throat without having to use cough medicines which can be harmful to kids under the age of four. Only use honey for kids one year of age and older as the spores in honey can be harmful to young kids and babies.
- Drink lemon juice with honey for a sore throat. Lemon helps dry up congestion, and honey offers a smooth coating. Mix a tablespoon of both the juice and honey in a bowl. Microwave the mixture for about twenty seconds or until it's warm. Make sure it's not too hot! Have your toddler swallow a teaspoon of the juice at a time.
- Gargle salt water. It can help reduce the inflammation in the throat and even remove any bacteria. If you want to try something else, gargling baking soda mixed with salt water can relieve a sore throat, kill bacteria, and prevent the growth of yeast and fungi. The formula is the following: 1 cup warm water, 1/4 teaspoon baking soda, and 1/8 teaspoon of salt.
- Eat cold or frozen liquids. Let them have a treat and suck on a popsicle to soothe their throat!
- Consume warm liquids. Use the opposite method and have them sip warm liquids such as water, tea, or chicken soup. It can ease the tickle in the throat.
- Help them get good rest. This is one of the best ways to help your toddler recover from a cold.
- Try apple cider vinegar. Its acidic nature not only combats a sore throat but also gets rid of bacteria. Try diluting 1-2 tablespoons of it in one cup of water and gargle. It's best to consult your doctor first before trying this method.
5. Help them get good rest.
This is one of the best ways to help your toddler recover from a cold.
6. Have them blow their nose.
There's no better way to eliminate mucus than to have them blow their nose!
Should I Give My Toddler Cough Syrup?
Giving cough syrup to toddlers is no longer recommended for children under the age of four. Children's cough syrup has been proven ineffective for kids younger than four and can sometimes lead to serious issues, which can then lead to death—especially for kids who have been given the wrong dosage or a mix of medicines with the same ingredient.
Bottom Line: Keep your little ones hydrated and offer them a teaspoon of honey if they are older than one year old.
Cough Medicine for Kidsview quiz statistics
Does My Toddler Have Whooping Cough?
What Is Whooping Cough?
Whooping cough, known as pertussis, is a bacterial infection that inflames the lungs and airways and infects the windpipe. That's why a symptom is the persistent, violent cough that sounds like a strange birdlike "whooping" sound made when kids try to take deep breaths between coughs.
Symptoms of whooping cough include:
- A mild cough
- A runny nose
At around the three-week mark, the classic coughing begins as intense fits. A person with whooping cough is highly infectious.
Is Whooping Cough the Same Thing as Croup?
No. Croup is an infection, mostly viral and almost never bacterial, of the larynx (vocal cords), trachea (windpipe), and sometimes the bronchial tubes (lungs). It's also contagious, particularly during the first few days of the illness. A symptom of this is a cough that sounds like a barking seal. The symptoms typically last three to four days.
How Do I Treat a Toddler With Croup?
- Keep them calm. Because croup causes their airways to become inflamed and narrow, breathing can become a little more difficult. If they cry continually or get worked up, the symptoms will continue to worsen.
- Give them fluids. Warm, clear fluids can help loosen mucus and relieve pressure.
- Keep the air moist. Use a cool-mist humidifier if you can. If not, run a hot shower in your bathroom and sit in the room (not the shower) with your toddler for ten minutes. Having access to fresh, cool hair may help appease the symptoms, so you can also try opening the window for a few minutes or driving around town with the windows down.
- Keep their head up (literally and figuratively). Propping your toddler's head with a pillow when they sleep at night can help.
- Saltwater nose drops.
- Pain and fever medication can be your friend.
Make sure to monitor your child's breathing at night.
Does My Toddler Have Strep Throat?
If you think your child has more than just a cold, consider whether they might have strep throat. Children between the ages of one and three may show symptoms that include:
- General discomfort
Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
Nasal discharge that might look thick or bloody
Loss of appetite, nausea, or stomach ache
If your toddler does have strep throat, help them recover by keeping them comfortable, well-rested, and at home. This also helps keep them from spreading strep bacteria to others.
- Give them a steady supply of cold water, juice, or popsicles to calm their throat while also keeping them hydrated.
- Reduce their discomfort by providing them warm liquids such as soup or chamomile tea.
- If your toddler is old enough to gargle, mix a half teaspoon of salt in a cup of water and have them gargle the mixture to relieve any discomfort and potentially remove bacteria from their throat.
- Refer to the "Cold Remedies for Toddlers" section for additional ways to help expedite your child's recovery.
How to Lower a Fever in Toddlers
Learn how to combat your toddler's fever as you head in armed with the right information!
1. Will a bath help lower my child’s fever?
It may! Giving your toddler acetaminophen before the bath and then giving them a bath (lukewarm water!) may help lower their fever. If you don't want them to take a bath, you can sponge them with tepid water.
2. Is it better to try to break a fever? Or should I let the fever fight the infection?
A fever is part of your toddler's defense against bacteria and viruses, and it also signals their body to make more white blood cells and antibodies to fight the infection. At the same time, a temperature that's too high may make your child too uncomfortable to do things that can help their recovery, such as eating, drinking, or sleeping.
3. How else can I lower a fever in my toddler?
- Dampen a washcloth with cool water and place it on their forehead while they rest.
- Use a fan to keep your child cooler. Don't direct the fan at him or her, but keep the setting on low and place it to circulate the air around them.
- Adjust according to their current state. If they're shivering, give them a light blanket to help them get warm. If they feel like they're overheating, remove layers of clothing so they can release heat more easily through their skin.
- Stay indoors in a cool area. If you're outside, stay in the shade.
Signs of Dehydration in Toddlers
If your child exhibits any of the following symptoms when suffering with a stomach virus, call your doctor:
- Decreased urination
- Eyes that appear sunken in
- Extremely tired
- No tears when crying
- Extremely thirsty
- Dry, wrinkled, or discolored skin
Stomach Virus in Toddlers
Toddlers seem to experience random bouts of stomach viruses. Until their little immune systems can handle all of the different kinds of bacteria they may come across in foods or on surfaces, they will suffer from various stomach viruses at least 2-3 times a year.
Your poor little one may suffer unexpected bouts of vomiting or diarrhea along with a mild fever when he or she experiences a stomach virus. The thing to worry about most with these kinds of stomach viruses is dehydration from the vomiting or diarrhea.
To treat a stomach virus with vomiting:
- Encourage small sips of water or an electrolyte solution. Avoid sodas, sugary drinks, or juice as they may make vomiting worse. Water or an electrolyte solution like Pedialyte is best to help replenish any lost fluids. Wait at least 15-20 minutes after vomiting to give any fluids. Giving fluids too soon may make your child vomit again.
- Give an appropriate dose of acetaminophen. A bit of Tylenol can help your toddler feel a bit better. Be aware that it could irritate the stomach.
- Keep a bucket, shopping bags, extra towels, paper towels, and spare sheets handy. When my kids get a stomach virus with vomiting, I line a bucket with a shopping bag and gather all the necessary cleaning supplies so I can clean up in minutes without having to go crazy trying to find everything. I place an old sheet or two on my couch and place a few old towels on the floor. I place the bucket on top of the towels so that when my kids lie on the couch, it's nearby and ready. Often, a toddler will miss the bucket, but if you're prepared, you can encourage them to vomit as much as they can in the bucket.
- When vomiting subsides, encourage your toddler to eat small amounts of healthy food. Stick with complex carbohydrates like dry cereal or toast at first, and work your way back to the normal diet without fatty or greasy foods.
To treat a stomach virus with diarrhea:
- Encourage drinking, especially water or an electrolyte solution. Again, avoid sodas, sugary drinks, or juice as they may make diarrhea worse.
- Encourage small meals and snacks throughout the day. Keep the meals basic, without fatty or greasy foods.
- Keep a container of diaper rash cream handy. If your toddler is still in diapers, he or she may develop a rash from diarrhea. Generously apply diaper rash cream to the diaper area to avoid or treat a rash.
Stomach viruses usually go away after a few days. To keep the virus from spreading, regularly clean all the surfaces in your home with an anti-bacterial cleaning solution or disinfecting wipes. Wash your hands often, especially after you care for an ill toddler.
Does My Child Have the Flu?
Influenza viruses are found in the nose and throat. Your toddler can catch influenza from siblings, parents, family members, friends, or caregivers. How?
Germs usually spread in one of three ways:
Direct Contact: This can include acts such as kissing, touching, or holding hands with an infected person. By touching other people, you can pass on the virus.
Indirect Contact: This occurs when you touch something that's been touched by an infected person. Objects can include anything from a toy to a doorknob.
Air: Some germs spread through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Droplets from a cough or sneeze can reach another person’s nose or mouth.
In young children, flu can cause croup, pneumonia, and bronchiolitis. It can also weaken the immune system, which leads to bacterial infections of the ear, lung, or sinuses. Small children are especially susceptible to the flu.
What are the symptoms?
- Fever of 101°F or higher
- Achy body
- Runny nose
If you notice these symptoms in your toddler, especially during the peak flu season between October and February, it's is most likely the flu and not just a cold. Unfortunately, there's not much you can do other than to treat the symptoms.
What can I do if my child has influenza?
Keep your child as comfortable as possible.
Offer plenty of fluids and small, nutritious meals so they stay hydrated and have the nutrients they need. Clear broth and water are the best fluids to drink and may help with congestion.
If they have a fever, dress them in light clothing and keep the room temperature around 68°F.
Don’t give over-the-counter cough and cold medicines to children younger than six years old unless your doctor prescribes them.
Did you have your kids vaccinated for the flu?
Keep Your Toddler Healthy
One of your goals as a parent is to keep your kids healthy. To accomplish this, remember to have your kids:
- Wash their hands after using the bathroom, coughing, sneezing, etc.
- Eat a well-balanced diet full of vegetables and fruit and healthy sources of protein.
- Stay hydrated by drinking water, milk, or other healthy drinks.
- Take a multi-vitamin to make up for any missed nutrients.
- Get plenty of exercise.
As their parent, you can be a good example by doing all of those things as well. Also, remember to regularly clean and sanitize surfaces that are touched often (door knobs, cabinet handles, etc.).
Have a healthy household!
- Childhood Illnesses : RSV, Croup, and Whooping Cough
Whooping cough, or pertussis, is once again on the rise, along with RSV and croup, two other common childhood illnesses. Learn about the symptoms of these common childhood illnesses, how to treat them, and how to prevent them.
Dr. Charles Shubin
- The article has been modified since this review was written.
“I reviewed this article and generally was very impressed. The only change I'd suggest is to add a section on taking the child's tympanic temperature (by ear).
I'd like to emphasize that fever is not a disease, rather a body defense mechanism. It is actually good for you as it helps you recover faster. Unfortunately, it makes you feel bad and not drink as much as you should. So, I treat kids, not fevers!”
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Marissa