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Sick child: Questions to ask your pediatrician

When you go and see your child's pediatrician, you expect to be asked quite a few questions. How long has she been sick? What symptoms does she have? What treatments have you already tried? Do they make her better or worse? These are just some of the typical questions a pediatrician will ask when you go in for a visit when your child is sick. If it seems like your pediatrician is playing "20 questions" or is on a fact-finding mission that is because they are.

The answers to these questions, and others, will help your pediatrician figure out what is wrong with your child and what the appropriate treatments will be.

Of course the physical exam is important too, but you would be surprised at how much your pediatrician relies on this history of your child's illness to make a diagnosis. In addition to answering your pediatrician's questions, you should ask your own so that you have a good idea what is wrong with your child, how you are supposed to treat her and when she should get better. Knowing the answers to the following questions can also help to relieve your anxiety, prevent misunderstandings and avoid missing complications or signs that your child is getting much sicker.

What is wrong with your child?
Getting an accurate diagnosis is one of the big reasons that you go to the doctor. Unfortunately, parents often don't have a good understanding of what their child was diagnosed with. What does it mean to have "just a virus," bronchitis, a sinus infection or a "stomach bug?"

When your pediatrician says that your child has bronchitis, what they are really saying is your child has an infection with a virus that is causing her to have a productive cough and she should get better without antibiotics in a few weeks. If you don't understand that, you will likely be surprised when she isn't quickly getting better or why she wasn't prescribed antibiotics. So don't be afraid to ask questions about your child's diagnosis, especially if you aren't sure what the diagnosis means.

What else could it be?
Every time that your pediatrician makes a diagnosis, she likely considers many other things that could be wrong with your child. For example, your child may have gotten diagnosed as having a migraine the last time you saw the pediatrician with symptoms of a headaches and vomiting, but your pediatrician probably also considered that those symptoms could be caused by meningitis, a brain tumor or even food poisoning.

Knowing that your pediatrician was thinking about these other conditions can help make you feel better if you were thinking that your child really had a brain tumor or meningitis.

What are the prescribed treatments?
Before leaving your pediatrician's office, you should have a good understanding of how you are supposed to treat your child. This includes knowing the directions for any prescriptions, so that you can double check what the pharmacy dispenses to you and hopefully catch any mistakes that might be made.

If you aren't given a prescription, you should still ask about symptomatic treatments that may help your child feel better. This might include using an over-the-counter cold medicine, a cool mist humidifier and getting your child to drink lots of fluids when they have an upper respiratory tract infection.

Are there any alternative treatments?
For many childhood conditions, the big "alternative" is going to be simply watching and waiting if your child gets better on their own. So if your child has a green runny nose for two weeks and is prescribed an antibiotic for a sinus infection, one alternative would be to wait a few more days to see if she starts getting better on her own. Of course if your child has a more serious illness or more severe symptoms, your pediatrician may say that waiting isn't a good idea and that you should start the prescribed treatments right away.

Asking about alternative treatments can also be helpful if you aren't happy or comfortable with what your pediatrician has prescribed for your child. There is almost always more than one way to treat a child, so don't feel bad to ask about alternatives.

When should you expect her to be better?
This is probably the most important question to ask, both so that you don't miss signs that your child is getting worse and so that you don't rush back to the pediatrician too soon.

For example, if your child is diagnosed with a cold or the flu, you shouldn't be surprised that she isn't getting better or is getting worse over the next few days. On the other hand, after getting diagnosed with an ear infection or strep throat, you should expect quick improvement over the next few days and may need to call your pediatrician if she isn't.

As important parts of this question, you should also ask about what you should do if she isn't getting better at the expected time and what signs to look for that may mean that she is really getting worse.

What could have prevented this?
In many cases, there is nothing that could have prevented your child from getting sick, especially if they caught a "bug" at school or daycare. But sometimes there are things you can do to keep your kids well, so don't be hesitant to ask. For example, for kids who get a lot of ear infections, it can help if you don't give your child bottles while he is lying down, don't let him fall asleep with a pacifier, and for family members to stop smoking.

Do you need to come back for a recheck?
Parents, especially if they have to miss work or pull their kids out of school, often underestimate the importance of rechecks. After all, why should you go to the doctor if your child isn't sick anymore?

A recheck appointment is very important though, both to make sure that your child really is doing well and to prevent further problems. They are especially important if your child has a chronic condition, like asthma, allergies, constipation or any other condition for which your child takes medicine on a daily basis.

Getting your answers
Getting answers to all of these questions is important for parents, but your pediatrician will likely also be happy too if you have a better understanding of all of these things. If you don't have these answers, you will probably call and ask for them later, be unhappy with your visit, or end up back in the office or in the ER unnecessarily.

So don't be afraid to ask questions when your see your pediatrician. Remember that you both have the same goal -- to help your child get better and to keep them safe and healthy.

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