Definition and Overview
A sick child visit, as the term implies, is a visit to a pediatrician for a checkup when a child is sick. Its purpose is to diagnose and treat a particular acute health concern affecting the child. This is different from a well-child visit, which is a routine to check the growth and development of the child, to administer immunizations, and to give the child a general physical exam to detect potential problems and address them early.
A sick child visit should also be differentiated from a medical emergency or an emergency walk-in visit. The former is important but not urgent and is conducted at a pediatrician’s clinic usually with a prior appointment. On the other hand, medical emergencies, such as seizures, breathing difficulties, or injury, require immediate medical attention at an emergency department of a hospital, where the child will be urgently treated, without the need for an appointment.
Who Should Undergo and Expected Results
Any child who is experiencing acute symptoms, unless they are life-threatening, must be brought to the pediatrician to seek medical attention. Sometimes, however, parents find it difficult to decide when to bring their child to a pediatrician for a sick child visit or when to just treat their child’s symptoms at home. In many cases, a healthy child may just need more fluids and rest to feel better. Thus, pediatricians give a general list of the serious symptoms that should be brought to their attention. These include:
- High fever in children younger than one year old
- High fever in children older than one year old accompanied by other symptoms such as vomiting, rashes, confusion, headache, or stiff neck
- High fever or persistent fever that lasts more than three days in a row
- Widespread rash
- Rashes that look like chicken pox
- Rashes that are accompanied by heavy breathing
- Any unusual symptom that lasts for more than three days in a row
- Persistent pain, such as stomachache, sore throat, headache, or an earache
Most pediatricians encourage parents to call ahead and schedule an appointment. One advantage of doing so is that the child will not have to wait with other sick patients in the clinic.
At the end of a sick child visit, the cause or specific illness that is causing the patient’s acute symptoms should be identified, and the parent should be:
- given a prescription for medications, if needed
- given dosage instructions on administering medications
- given instructions to help relieve the child’s symptoms
- informed about possible warning signs and how to deal with them
How Does the Procedure Work?
Sick child visits usually take around 15 to 30 minutes and involves checking the child’s symptoms, determining the cause of the problem, prescribing the right treatment, and discussing other important details.
During the appointment, the pediatrician will first ask about the child’s symptoms, when they began, his and his family's medical history, and other questions that may help in diagnosing the child’s illness. This is typically followed by a physical examination, which will be based on the reported symptoms. This may include taking the child’s temperature, listening to the child’s breathing and heartbeat from the chest and back, and checking his neck or throat for signs of infection. The doctor will also ask about treatment and home remedies the parents have already tried. All these details are usually enough for the doctor to give a diagnosis and prescribe the correct treatment.
In cases where the pediatrician needs more information to come up with a diagnosis, some lab tests, such as a urine test or a stool analysis, may be ordered. These are routine procedures that are safe for children and will not cause discomfort.
Possible Risks and Complications
A sick child visit is usually not urgent, but it is still important to seek medical attention in cases of any unusual changes in a child’s condition to ensure that the symptoms are not linked to a serious health problem.
Parents are advised to seek a doctor’s appointment when they feel they need to. If the child has a fever or has a mild runny nose, but is acting normally, the parent may use the watchful waiting approach to see if any other symptoms arise or the symptoms get worse and, until then, may use home remedies to relieve the child’s symptoms. However, if the child looks very weak and seems sicker than they’ve been in the past, parents should call the doctor even if the acute symptoms seem mild. Some parents worry about going to the pediatrician for nothing serious, but doctors generally advise them to trust their instincts in evaluating their child’s condition.
Also, parents are advised to be specific about their child’s symptoms when booking an appointment with the pediatrician. If the child is exhibiting chronic symptoms instead of acute ones, parents should seek a consultation instead of a sick child visit. Chronic symptoms are commonly linked to underlying diseases that may require more serious treatment. Thus, diagnosis of these symptoms may require a more detailed examination and some lab tests, so the routine 15-30-minute sick child appointment may not be sufficient.
- American Academy of Pediatrics
- Academic Pediatric Association