Home Remedies: Expert Tips for Caring for Your Sick Child at Home
By Ashley Antle
‘Tis the season… for viruses. They are the only things kids have no problem sharing. Let you play with my new toy? Nope. Have my cold? Sure! And I’ll throw in a stomach bug, too, just for fun.
But it’s no laughing matter when your little one unknowingly brings home the latest viral bug. Sick days are inconvenient at best and scary if things take a turn for the worse. While respiratory illnesses such as RSV, flu, COVID and human metapneumovirus can lead to serious illness and hospitalization, especially for those with already weakened immune systems, most cases of viral infection can be managed at home.
We asked Laura Romano, D.O., a hospitalist at Cook Children’s Medical Center, to give us her best tips to help parents better care for their sick kids at home and potentially save themselves a visit to the doctor, urgent care or emergency department.
- Stay hydrated.
Dehydration can turn a run-of-the-mill viral illness into a serious one. Your child should be urinating at least once every 8 hours. Decreased urine output (fewer wet diapers), or slightly dry lips, are signs of mild dehydration. In more severe dehydration, urine output or wet diapers will significantly decrease below the child’s normal. A child may stop producing tears when they are crying, and their eyes can appear sunken. In infants, the soft spot on top of their heads will look decreased. If you are concerned about dehydration in your baby, call your pediatrician or bring your baby to an emergency room or urgent care. In older children, encourage fluids for a few hours. If there is no improvement, call your pediatrician. Electrolyte drinks can be helpful if you suspect your child is dehydrated or at risk of becoming dehydrated. If they aren’t interested in drinking, have them suck on a popsicle.
- Fever is our friend.
Fever can be scary, but it’s not the enemy. It is the body’s natural way of fighting infection, and it’s safe in babies 3 months and up. Technically speaking, a fever isn’t a fever until your child’s temperature rises to 100.4 or above. A temperature above 100.4 in babies less than 2 months old is a medical emergency and needs to be evaluated in the emergency room.
Check an infant’s temperature using a rectal thermometer. For older kids, use a forehead or ear thermometer until they are old enough to follow directions to keep a thermometer under their tongue.
If fever is making your child uncomfortable, over-the-counter fever reducers such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen can help ease symptoms. Any fever lasting longer than four to five days, or one that continues to climb and does not break with fever reducers, should be evaluated by a physician. Otherwise, it’s safe to manage fever at home.
- Keep the air and sinuses moist.
Respiratory viruses often come with lots of congestion, coughing and snot. Saline drops and suction help to moisten and clear congested nasal passages in babies. For bigger kids, have them blow their noses and stay hydrated to help thin the mucus. A cool-mist humidifier will keep the air moist and ease cough and congestion. This is especially helpful during nap times and at night.
- Skip the cough syrup.
Most over-the-counter medications for cough and cold are not effective in young children, Dr. Romano says. Instead, stick to humidifiers and hydration.
- Know when to go.
There is always a chance a viral infection such as RSV can cause respiratory distress or turn into a bacterial infection, like pneumonia. If your child’s condition is not improving or getting worse, call your pediatrician.
If your child appears to be in respiratory distress, it’s time to go to urgent care or the emergency department.
- Signs of respiratory distress:
- Increased number of breaths per minute
- Increased heart rate
- Bluish color around the mouth, on the lips or on the fingernails.
- Pale or grayish skin
- A grunting sound during exhale
- Nose flaring
- Chest appears to sink in with each breath
- Head bobbing when breathing in
- Change in alertness
- Sharing is not always caring.
If your child is sick, keep them home to limit the spread of infection to others. A good rule of thumb is to make sure your child is symptom-free, without medication, for at least 24 hours before returning to school or other activities. Your fellow moms in the preschool playgroup will thank you. So will your child’s daycare or school.
Good hand hygiene remains one of the easiest ways to prevent the spread of viruses. Teach your child to cough or sneeze into their elbow and wash their hands immediately after. Stay up to date on your child’s vaccines to help reduce spread and illness severity.
- Go with your gut.
You know your child best. If something seems off, don’t hesitate to call your pediatrician or get medical attention. These tips are meant to guide you and help ease your anxiety, but never underestimate what your gut is telling you about what your child needs.
For more tips to help you care for your sick child at home, check out these articles:
- Thermometer 411:
- Fever 411:
- Vaccine 411