Sniffles or Seriously Sick? A Guide to Toddler Illnesses

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Updated on Sep 5, 2014

As a parent, you want to make sure that your toddler has the healthiest start possible. But despite your hand-washing and Lysol-spraying, your kid's a sickness magnet. His constant contact with other germ-carrying kids, combined with his immature immune system leads to a bevy of runny noses and throat tickles. Luckily, most toddlers are pretty resilient and most illnesses tend to be mild.

Dr. Mary Ann Block, Medical Director of the Block Center, a clinic for the treatment of chronic health problems in children and adults, notes that not every illness is worth a trip to the doctor. "I remember a parent who brought her 7-year-old child in to see me because she had a fever. I asked why the child was there and the parent said because of the fever," she says. "The child had no other symptoms, was eating and drinking and playing comfortably. This parent didn't even realize that she did not have to see a doctor for this."

Before you make an appointment to see the pediatrician, know the most common illnesses for toddlers—and decide whether or not the symptoms are something that you can treat at home.

Respiratory Issues

From asthma to bronchitis, pertussis and even respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), your child's young lungs can take a beating during cold and flu season. Any infection or virus in the lungs can produce serious coughing and even trouble breathing, making it seriously dangerous for your toddler. If your toddler's having trouble breathing or is producing dry, barking coughs and gasping, make an appointment to see your pediatrician that day.

Any time an illness messes with your toddler's ability to breathe, it's a serious issue. Even if your doctor can't treat the issue in the office, she might send you home with a nebulizer for continual treatments, give you some tips to deal with the illness at home or even suggest a hospital stay for treatment.

GI Issues

The flu, rotavirus, diarrhea and a bevy of other other issues can fall into a category with serious tummy troubles. Your toddler's digestive system can be easily disrupted by a poor diet, a bug or other issues. If your child has a fever, is throwing up or has diarrhea, it might be time to see a pediatrician because these symptoms could lead to dangerous dehydration. Block recommends taking a toddler's temperature and watching for signs of a deeper issue. "For slightly older children, parents can take a 'wait and see' attitude. A fever is one of the body's ways of killing an infection, so unless it is 102 or higher it can be left to run its course. If the child is not drinking and is lethargic, they should see a doctor regardless of what the temperature is."


If your toddler has a runny nose, a fever, complains of aches and chills or a sore throat, a cold's the likely culprit. Colds are most common in the winter months, thanks to indoor play and the sustainability of germs in cold weather. A cold might take your toddler out of the game for a few days, but it's rarely a cause for concern. Unfortunately, signs of other issues can masquerade as cold symptoms. If your toddler has a sore throat and fever without coughing, it might be strep throat and a barking cough without other symptoms could be croup, both of which require medical attention.

If your toddler has a cold, a doctor can't do much to relieve symptoms. Instead, invest in a cool-mist humidifier and offer plenty of warm, steamy baths to help loosen congestion.

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