Posted On: May 10, 2013 by Patrick A. Malone

When to Call the Doctor

Claire McCarthy gets it. The primary care physician and medical director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Martha Eliot Health Center knows that when your kid is sick, it can be difficult to know when you can treat him or her on your own, and when it’s time to call the doctor.

Writing on, she confides, “Sometimes, when a parent tells me about something that happened with their child, I think (and say, as nicely as I can): Why didn’t they call right away?”

“And sometimes, when I’m talking to a parent or seeing their child in the office, I think (but don’t say): Why did they call about this?”

Sometimes you have no idea what’s ailing your child. You don’t know if the problem has peaked, or is getting worse. You don’t want to believe there’s something really wrong, you don’t want to miss something and you don’t want to worry the kid—or anyone—unnecessarily by being overprotective.

As the old TV ad used to say, “What’s a mother to do?”

According to McCarthy, call the doctor if:

  • The symptoms are bad. “Bad anything," says McCarthy. “Bad pain. Bad trouble breathing. Bad bleeding. Bad vomiting. I know, bad is subjective. But if in your head the word ‘bad’ seems to apply, better to get advice than wait and watch.”

  • The symptoms aren’t going away. Even if it’s a little thing … a slight limp, a nagging headache, a rash that the cream isn’t resolving, the diarrhea that’s mild but doesn’t end …

  • Your gut is telling you something is wrong. “I can’t tell you how much I’ve come to respect and rely on parental instinct,” McCarthy says. “The parents are nearly always right."

  • You can’t say: “I know what to do,” and really mean it. Be honest with yourself. Nobody knows what to do in every situation.

And, finally, says McCarthy, “[R]ead the list—but if what’s going on isn’t on the list and you’re worried, call.”

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