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Healthy Outlook

For Cold or Flu, Call the Advice Line before Visiting the Emergency Department

By Dr. Brenda Reilly

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Most parents know how to care for a sick child. But sometimes a fever or other symptoms last longer than we expect, or they seem more severe than we feel comfortable treating by ourselves.

The urge to "do something" is strong in those cases, and parents bring kids with cold or flu symptoms to the emergency department where I work every day this time of year.

But, if your healthcare provider has an advice-nurse line, I recommend phoning before bundling your sick child into the car. Even if you have to wait on hold, it is the quickest way to get help with managing those symptoms.

That is because, when it comes to cold and flu, you can perform the same treatment as a doctor at home. If you give them fluids and acetaminophen, the medicine in Tylenol and similar over-the-counter drugs, that is what we do in the emergency department, too.

Remember, there is no cure for the common cold or the flu. Our bodies take care of it, and it takes time. We help by resting and keeping hydrated. "Be patient" is not always satisfying advice for an anxious parent, but it is the best prescription.

Visiting the emergency department for cold or flu symptoms can be frustrating because there is no "first-come, first-served" rule. People with the most serious health concerns are seen first. It can be a long wait, and your child may encounter more germs in the waiting room.

There are some times, of course, when you should seek medical attention, especially if your child has asthma, diabetes or another chronic condition that could cause complications. The advice line can help sort out if this is one of those times.

In the case of cold or flu, the advice line helps you treat the patient immediately. The expert on the phone can explain how to do everything correctly, answer specific questions about your child's symptoms, and also help you decide if seeing a doctor would help.

Reasons to seek medical advice might include a fever lasting longer than three days or a sore throat without other accompanying cold symptoms. Those could all indicate an illness caused by bacteria, for which we do have medicines.

Persistent vomiting or diarrhea that lasts a couple days may also be a good reason to call, especially if your child is having a hard time keeping down medicine or fluids.

A loss of appetite is not necessarily a bad sign. Your child will eat when they get hungry, and being sick can affect hunger. If they are getting fluids, it's OK if they eat less than usual.

Also, remember that acetaminophen does not "cure" fever, and if your child still has the infection when the medicine wears off, the fever will return. That sounds obvious, but the sudden reappearance of a fever can be surprising and scary, especially late at night.

If you do decide to bring your child to the emergency department, remember to think ahead. Bring along any medications that your child takes and a water bottle to keep them hydrated.

Don't forget books or some other quiet activity either – the visit is often stressful for parents, but boring for kids!

Healthy Outlook is written by the professional staff of Contra Costa Health Services, the county health department. Send questions to series coordinator Dr. David Pepper at For more health information, go to
About the Author

Dr. Reilly works in the emergency department at Contra Costa Regional Medical Center in Martinez.