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Signs and Symptoms of an Unwell Child and What They Mean

Medically reviewed by Regina Victoria Boyles, MD · Pediatrics

Written by Lorraine Bunag, R.N. · Updated Jan 15, 2023

Signs and Symptoms of an Unwell Child and What They Mean

It can be worrying for parents when their child is not feeling well. So it helps to keep some of the usual warning signs in mind. Here’s some of the most common signs and symptoms of an unwell child, along with the possible reasons behind them.

Loss of Appetite and Fatigue

Appetite loss and fatigue could go hand in hand. When a child is sick, he or she might appear weak or tired and refuse to eat. It’s also crucial to differentiate between picky eating and loss of appetite. If your child has the latter, they might not touch even their most favorite dish.

Many conditions can result in weakness and appetite loss, so it’s a good idea to keep an eye on their other complaints.

Case in point: kids who experience constipation or flu, may not find it in them to eat.

signs and symptoms of an unwell child


It’s crucial to bring a child to the doctor if they show unusual lethargy, weakness or tiredness or when they cannot keep their food down.

Similarly, seek medical help when abdominal pain happens with eating, and if you notice weight loss or poor weight gain.

Ear Pain

The common signs and symptoms of an unwell child also include ear pain.

It’s easy to observe ear pain: younger children who cannot speak well yet will keep on pointing or tugging their ear while acting hurt or irritated. Older kids will complain to you about how their ear hurts.

Ear pain has many causes, but the most common include middle ear infection (otitis media), tooth pain from decay extending to the jaw and ear, ear pressure from sinus congestion or cold, and an infection in the ear canal skin (swimmer’s ear).


Noting ear pain in your child means you need to bring them to the doctor because they might need antibiotics if it’s an infection.

Cough, Cold, and Sore Throat

We cannot talk about the signs and symptoms of an unwell child without discussing cough, cold, and sore throat. You see, not only are they health conditions on their own, but they could be connected or serve as clues to an underlying illness.

Case in point: the common cold in itself can cause cough and sore throat. Experts say if your child has a mild, productive cough (with loose phlegm), the condition will most likely disappear within a week.

Please note that while the most common cause of cough, cold, and sore throat is a viral infection (cold and influenza), a bacterial infection is also possible. In those instances, the doctor may recommend antibiotic therapy.


Bring your child to the doctor if they are:

  • Coughing up a lot of phlegm and lingers for several days
  • Exhibiting difficulty breathing, fast breathing or shortness of breath
  • Complaining of severe throat pain that prevents them from swallowing

Abdominal Pain, Diarrhea, and Vomiting

Next on our list are the digestive symptoms stomachache, diarrhea, and vomiting. In most cases, when a child has diarrhea, they will probably also have a tummy ache.

Many conditions can trigger these digestive symptoms, but the most common are viral gastroenteritis and food poisoning like those from salmonellosis and listeria infection.


If you observe that your child has diarrhea and vomiting, bring them to the doctor as the dehydration risk increases significantly.

Severe abdominal pain or one that recurs or sticks around for more than a few days also needs medical attention.

Fever and Chills

Parents will agree that fever, which sometimes happens with chills, is one of the most common signs and symptoms of an unwell child.

The tricky thing about high temperature is that many health problems are associated with it: from the common cold, which clears up in a matter of days, to the life-threatening bacterial meningitis.

For this reason, parents must keep a close watch on the other symptoms that occur with fever. Reports say that children with the following conditions may exhibit high temperature:

  • Influenza
  • Dengue fever
  • Hand, foot, and mouth disease
  • Gastroenteritis
  • Ear infection
  • Bronchitis, Pneumonia
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Chickenpox, Measles


Babies who have a fever of 38.5 C or higher should be brought to the doctor. Young kids with a temperature of 39 C also need medical attention. Persistent fever that lasts for more than 2 days should not be ignored.

Immediately bring them to the doctor if there are other signs like stiff neck, severe abdominal pain, rashes, and trouble breathing.


A headache is one of the common signs and symptoms of an unwell child, and just like most cases of adult headaches, it’s usually no cause of concern.

Remember: kids, too, can experience the many types of headaches that adults encounter, such as tension headache, migraine, and congestion headache.


Immediately bring your little one to the doctor if they complain of severe headache, especially if it comes with other associated symptoms like vision problems, lethargy/weakness, confusion, and stiff neck. Call their pediatrician if their headache:

  • Occurred after a head injury
  • Keeps on coming back or get worse
  • Happens daily


And finally, we have skin rashes.

Usually, rashes are no cause of concern if they happen due to simple mosquito bites or prickly heat. However, they may also be caused by skin conditions like eczema or allergy to pollen, food, or medications.


Your child needs medical attention for their skin rash if:

  • It comes with other symptoms like swelling in the hands and face or difficulty breathing.
  • They also have a fever.
  • It’s swollen, crusting, or oozing.
  • It involves the eyes, inside of their mouth, or genital area.
  • It appears unusual (eg. does not blanch when pressed)

Final Thoughts

Avoid treating your child with over-the-counter medications if you are uncertain of their condition. The best course of action when you have an unwell child is to bring them to the doctor. That way, they can receive a proper diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

Learn more about Child Health here. 


Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Medically reviewed by

Regina Victoria Boyles, MD


Written by Lorraine Bunag, R.N. · Updated Jan 15, 2023

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