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Is it just a cold or something more serious?

As the days get shorter and the air is cooler, coughs and sniffles become a regular part of households, especially if you have little ones. While the vast majority of coughs and colds cause only short-term discomfort, there are some childhood illnesses that can become more serious causing life-threatening illness. If these are not treated quickly they can cause long lasting health problems, or worse. The question a lot of parents ask is, how do I know if it’s something more serious? When do I need to get medical help?

As a general rule of thumb if your child is not getting better within a day or two, or has symptoms that are concerning over and above being generally unwell, such as if your child is very listless, struggling with breathing or has a high or recurrent fever, you should always see a doctor. Some serious illnesses, such as sepsis, meningitis and influenza can be life-threatening and require prompt treatment that is time sensitive. Beware of their signs and symptoms listed below and see a doctor straight away if your child presents with them.


Sepsis is caused by a bacterial infection in the blood, and is a very serious medical condition. If your child has any signs of sepsis they should be seen by a doctor straight away. While your child is being examined by a doctor, it would be worth asking if they believe sepsis may be a possibility.

Signs of Sepsis


Meningitis is an infection of the membrane that covers the brain and spinal cord. There are a number of different causes of meningitis in children, the most common being an infection caused by a virus or bacteria. While meningitis is not common it can be very serious and urgent medical treatment is required. There are many reasons why meningitis occurs and in some instances it may be a complication from another illness, such as measles or chickenpox. Bacterial meningitis is very serious and can be life-threatening.

Signs of meningitis include:

  • High fever
  • Fits and seizures
  • Can be very hard to wake or drowsy
  • Sensitivity to lights
  • A stiff neck
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Irritability
  • Skin rash – normally a purple-red splotchy rash

Meningitis is harder to detect in babies than toddlers, and babies may have signs such as:

  • Poor feeding
  • A high pitched cry
  • Arching their back
  • Inconsolable crying or hard to settle
  • Bulging fontanelle (the soft spot on the top of the head)
  • A purple-red splotchy rash
  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Different temperament


Influenza is a common illness that can cause serious complications, especially in vulnerable people, such as young children. The influenza virus is very contagious and can cause severe illness. Staying away from people who have been diagnosed with influenza and employing good hygiene, such as frequent hand washing, is important in preventing infection. While you may hear of people saying they have “the flu” it can sometimes be confused with a cold, influenza may have similar symptoms but they are generally much more severe.

Signs of influenza include:

  • A very high fever and chills
  • Body aches and pains
  • Feeling lethargic and drowsy
  • Dry cough
  • Sore throat
  • Blocked or runny nose

Talking to your healthcare provider

As a parent, you know your child best. If you suspect something is not right with your child, don’t be afraid to raise it with the doctor. It is important to have open and clear communication with your child’s healthcare providers.


  • No question is silly. If your question or concern hasn’t been answered or there is something you don’t understand, be sure to ask the healthcare provider to explain it again.
  • Always be persistent with your questions or requests, you are your child’s advocate and it is important that you feel reassured that your child is being looked after.
  • Follow up on test results. Check in with doctors or nurses to find out results of any tests that have been done.
  • Book a further appointment if things do not improve.
  • If you don’t believe that your child is receiving adequate care, it’s your right to ask for a second opinion.
  • If you think it is serious and could be time critical, call an ambulance or head to your nearest emergency department.

Written by Shine Lawyers. Last modified: July 17, 2019.

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