Emily Oster

2 min Read Emily Oster

Emily Oster

When Should I Call the Pediatrician?

Q&A on sickness

Emily Oster

2 min Read

My toddler has a new stuffy nose or cough every other week from day care. How do I know when to call my pediatrician? I feel like I don’t want to bother them (they must get these calls all the time), but it’s hard to know when my daughter is sick enough to justify a call or when further testing for flu or RSV might be helpful. 

—Repeat caller

This is a great question. My first reaction: stop worrying about bothering them! If you are concerned, you should call. Perhaps more importantly, you should have a doctor who you feel comfortable calling, and even asking them more about when you should call. If you don’t, or you’re thinking about finding a pediatrician in the first place, I highly recommend this article by Dr. Krupa Playforth about finding “Dr. Right.”  

However, to your question of whether there are any general rules about when to call, beyond just “when you are concerned”: Most stuffy noses and coughs are caused by viral illnesses. There are some you’ve heard of — flu, RSV, COVID — and many you probably haven’t — other coronaviruses, various adeno- and enteroviruses, etc. For the most part, it doesn’t matter which of these your child has, so testing isn’t relevant. 

The main reasons you’d want to see your doctor is if you suspect a bacterial infection (for example, if they have an ear infection) or if they are sick enough that they might need more fluids or other support. Our pediatrician phrases it as “if they seem like a wet dishrag” and do not perk up after Tylenol or ibuprofen, then you want to call the doctor for sure. If your kid is whiny but they also seem basically like themself, you probably do not need to go in.

But call! Call if you are worried! You will not be the only one.

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