How to Take Care of Your Child When He or She Is Sick

Mother taking son's temperature
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Knowing what to do when your kids are sick can help them feel better faster and decrease unnecessary calls or visits to your pediatrician.

The usual advice that most parents remember is that they should starve a fever and feed a cold. And although it doesn't help to make your child better, that is usually what naturally happens. Kids with fever don't usually want to eat much while children with a simple cold often don't feel that bad and have a good appetite.

A little more specific advice will likely be more helpful for you. Although there is no treatment for many of the childhood conditions that cause these symptoms, doing many of the things described below should help your child to feel better.


Vomiting is one of the more frustrating symptoms for parents, who often make things worse by pushing fluids too fast. If your child's vomiting is from a simple viral infection, while you do want to prevent him from becoming dehydrated, it is usually best to give frequent small amounts of fluid. An oral rehydration electrolyte solution is usually the best choice, and you can offer your child 1 to 3 teaspoons of fluid every 5 to 10 minutes. Even when vomiting a lot, they can usually handle this small amount of fluid. Popsicles are a good alternative.

As your child gets better and is vomiting less, you can increase how much you are giving him, for example, moving up to 1 to 3 tablespoons. After that, if he doesn't vomit for a few hours, you can increase the amount again to a few ounces at a time. If he begins vomiting again, give him a break for an hour or so and then try again and seek medical attention if he begins to get dehydrated.


Diarrhea is another common symptom that usually accompanies vomiting when children have a stomach virus. If your child isn't vomiting much, you can usually continue his regular diet and just give a few extra ounces of fluids every time that he has diarrhea. If your child doesn't want to eat his regular diet, then a more bland diet, such as the BRAT diet, which includes Bananas, Rice, Apple Sauce, and Toast, might be helpful. If he is hungry, you can usually continue his regular diet, though.

Cough and Runny Nose

These symptoms are common in children with upper respiratory tract infections, such as a cold. If the runny nose and cough are bothersome, you can usually give your child a cold and cough medicine to help relieve his symptoms. When choosing a cold medication, pick one that covers the symptoms he is having, and avoid multi-symptom medicines unless your child has all of the symptoms the medication treats. For example, if your child has a runny nose and is sleeping well and isn't coughing, then you might just need medicine with a decongestant.

Other treatments that might be helpful are using saline nasal drops in your younger child's nose and then suctioning them out to help clear his nasal passages. Older children might use a topical nasal decongestant. A cool mist humidifier might also help if your child is very congested.

Barking Cough

Children who wake up barking like a seal usually have croup, a common viral infection. In most cases, your child was fine when he went to bed and then wakes up in the middle of the night with a barking cough and trouble breathing. Some symptomatic treatments that might help include going into the bathroom, closing the door and turning on all of the hot water. Holding and comforting your child as he breathes in the steamed air is often helpful. A cool mist humidifier or going outside briefly if it is a cool night might also help. Seek medical attention if your child is having a lot of trouble breathing.

After the first night or two of barking, the symptoms of croup usually become more like a regular cold. Some children do need treatment with special breathing treatments and steroids, especially if they are having a lot of trouble breathing.


Most parents know how to treat a child's fever with acetaminophen or ibuprofen, but they still get scared when their child has a high fever. Remember that fever is just a symptom, and if your child is otherwise well, or feels a lot better once you get his fever down, then you don't usually have to be too concerned. Seek medical attention if your younger child (under three months of age) has a fever, or your child at any age has a fever and appears ill.

If your child develops a febrile seizure, seek immediate medical attention if it lasts more than a few minutes. If the seizure is brief and your child is well afterward, you may just want to call your pediatrician for advice.

Abdominal Pain

Children often have abdominal pain, either as part of a stomach virus or if they are constipated. And often there is no good symptomatic treatment to make your child better. Instead, try to figure out what is causing his symptoms and seek medical attention if the pain persists or is worsening.

Ear Ache

If your child has sudden ear pain and has had a cold, then he likely has an ear infection. Older children, especially after age 3 to 4 years, are usually pretty good at localizing the pain from an ear infection. Pain relief with acetaminophen or ibuprofen is usually all that is necessary until you can see your doctor if you suspect that your child has an ear infection.

Sore Throat

A sore throat is a nonspecific symptom, and while it might be from a throat infection, like strep, it is also often caused by a cold and postnasal drip. If your child has a  and is very congested, a decongestant might be helpful as can pain relievers. If you suspect strep, see your doctor for a strep test.

Head Ache

This symptom is common with many childhood infections, including a cold or the flu, and usually, responds to pain relievers. Seek medical attention if your child has a severe headache or if he also has a high fever and persistent vomiting.

Mouth Ulcers

Ulcers are common in children with gingivostomatitis, herpangina, and Hand Foot and Mouth disease, who also have blisters on their hands and feet. These are all caused by viruses and don't usually require treatment. Things you can do to make your child feel better is to give lots of fluids, although avoiding orange juice, pain relievers, and a mixture of Benadryl and Maalox to coat the ulcers (use equal parts of each, but don't offer more than the recommended dose of Benadryl for your child's age and weight).

Pink Eye

Although eye infections can be caused by a virus, if your child's eye is red and has a lot of green and yellow drainage, then he likely will need topical antibiotic eye drops. Wiping the drainage away with a warm washcloth should help until you can see your pediatrician.

If your child's eyes have drainage, but they aren't red, then it may just be reflux of nasal congestion into his eyes and not a real eye infection.

Itchy Rashes

There are many things that can cause your child to have an itchy rash, including insect bites, irritation and contact allergies. An oral antihistamine and a topical steroid cream, in addition to other over-the-counter anti-itch treatments, can be helpful for these types of rashes. Cool compresses also often provide relief.

Urinary Pain

Although sometimes just caused by irritation, children who have pain when they urinate usually have a urinary tract infection. Although you will need medical attention, how long you can wait depends on your child's symptoms. If she also has a high fever and is irritable, you should likely seek immediate medical attention. For other children, giving lots of fluids and a pain/fever reducer might be helpful until you can see your Pediatrician.


Parents of children with asthma who begin wheezing usually know to give a bronchodilator, reliever, or quick-relief medication, like albuterol or Xopenex.

If your child has never had asthma before and is wheezing, then it could be the first sign of asthma, or he may have a viral infection, like RSV/bronchiolitis. Seek medical attention if he is wheezing and is having trouble breathing or has a constant cough.

By Vincent Iannelli, MD
Vincent Iannelli, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Iannelli has cared for children for more than 20 years.