Recognising illness in children factsheet


As a parent you know what your child is like when they are well so you can detect the subtle changes in mood, behaviour, activity and appetite that indicate your child may be developing an illness.  

If there are signs that your child is only very mildly unwell you may choose to wait to see how the illness progresses before seeing a doctor.   

If you are worried about your child you should take them to see your doctor. If you feel your child needs to be seen urgently then your local hospital Emergency Department is always available. 

 When to be concerned

There are general features of a more serious illness which should prompt you to see a doctor more urgently. These include: 

  • alertness and irritability 
  • breathing 
  • skin colour and appearance 
  • fluids in and out - how much your child is drinking and passing urine.

You should seek help urgently if these features develop rapidly, occur together or if your child is very young.


As your child becomes unwell they may become less active, sleep more and become more drowsy. More serious abnormalities are floppiness, a weak cry, irritability or poor response to things around them – see a doctor urgently if these occur. 


If your child is breathing rapidly, noisily or seems to be having difficulty breathing you should see a doctor urgently. If the problem is very severe you may see a dusky colour around your child’s lips or there may be pauses when they stop breathing. You should call an ambulance if these occur.  

Skin colour and appearance

If your child has unusual paleness or a purple mottling of the skin of the extremities you should see a doctor.  

Many rashes are due to minor infections and are not serious. If your child has a purple rash that does not fade with pressure you should take them to a doctor urgently. Press a glass on the skin and look through it to see if it fades. This may be a sign of meningococcal infection.

Fluids in and out

If your child is drinking less than half the normal amount or not passing some urine every 6 hours you should see a doctor to check if they are becoming dehydrated. Signs of serious problems are vomiting with blood or green fluid (bile), or bowel motions with blood. You should see a doctor urgently if these occur. 

Other signs of potentially serious problems include severe or persistent pain or distress, rash and seizures (fits).  


Fever itself is not harmful.  The infection causing the fever is often viral and needs rest and fluids, but sometimes it is bacterial and needs treatment with antibiotics. A baby under 3 months with a fever over 38°C should be taken to see a doctor as the cause is often hard to find and the other signs of illness may be difficult to detect.  

Use the features described above (changes in alertness, breathing, skin colour and fluids in and out) to determine how sick an older infant or child with a fever is. If your child shivers with the fever you should take him to see a doctor. 

Seizures (fits)

If your child has a seizure you should lie them on their side and call an ambulance on triple zero (000).

Resources and more information

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Last updated Tuesday 30th January 2024