Baby health scares: Watch out for the signs and symptoms

Knowing what to do in times of trouble, and always trusting your gut, will go a long way in keeping your baby safe.

 Dehydration in babies can occur with a fever, diarrhoea or vomiting.

Being a parent is the best job in the world but it can also be the toughest. Babies sometimes get sick and it’s important to know the signs and symptoms of some conditions that can be extra dangerous for little people. Here are a few baby health scares and the best course of action you can take.


Dehydration can occur with a fever, diarrhoea, or vomiting, and in hot weather, explains Dr Natasha Padayachee-Govender, a paediatrician at Life Fourways Hospital.


  • A dry mouth or cracked lips
  • No urination for more than four to six hours
  • No tears when crying
  • Lethargy and sluggishness
  • A sunken fontanel (the gap between the bones in a baby’s skull).

The best course of action

Try breast- or formula feeding and give your baby or young child an oral rehydration solution. Offer a few teaspoons of fluid every few minutes. If your baby won’t drink from a bottle or cup, try using a spoon or syringe.

Seek professional help: In the presence of any of the symptoms described, but especially if your child:

  • Has had diarrhoea that lasts more than a few days
  • Has been vomiting for more than one day
  • Can’t keep any fluids down
  • Vomits blood or has  bloody diarrhoea
  • Hasn’t had anything to drink in many hours.


Meningitis is a condition that can cause fever, headache and a stiff neck, explains Dr Padayachee-Govender. Meningitis develops when the tissues that surround the brain and spinal cord (called the meninges) become infected. This can occur after a child has an infection in another part of the body and the germs travel through the blood to the tissues that surround the brain and spinal cord. There are two main types of meningitis – bacterial and viral – which are based on which germs are causing the infection. It’s important that doctors find out which form of meningitis your child has, as bacterial meningitis is a medical emergency. If not treated quickly, it can lead to deafness, learning problems and even death.


  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Not feeding well
  • Diarrhoea
  • A bulging soft spot on the skull
  • Being more sleepy or fussy than usual.

Good to know: Sometimes, bacterial and viral meningitis present with different symptoms. Children with bacterial meningitis may have seizures or red-purple spots on the skin, while children with viral meningitis may have a runny nose, muscle aches, cough, or a red-pink rash.

The best course of action

If you think that your child may have meningitis, seek medical help immediately. Remember that children under the age of five are particularly at risk and that some forms of meningitis are preventable. Make sure your child receives the vaccines recommended by your healthcare provider and always be mindful of the above symptoms.


Choking is one of the most common life-threatening hazards to children, according to David Stanton, head of clinical leadership at Netcare 911.  “Witnessing a child choking can be frightening. It can happen either because of the total obstruction of the airway by a swallowed object, or when something blocks the windpipe instead of going down the food passage.”


  • Coughing and gasping, or making a high pitched squeaking noise
  • Inability to speak or breathe
  • Face turning red and then blue
  • Soundless crying
  • Clutching at the throat.

The best course of action

Time is of the essence when it comes to choking, so you should act quickly and call for help. If your child is older than a year and the airway is totally blocked, do the Heimlich manoeuvre. This involves quick, upward abdominal thrusts to force a rush of air out of the lungs, similar to a cough, and force whatever is causing your child to choke out of the airway.

If your child is younger than a year:

  • Sit down and place your baby face down on your forearm, which needs to rest on your thigh for stability
  • Ensure your baby’s head and neck are lower than her torso
  • Thump the middle of her back firmly with the heel of your hand several times
  • Keep checking her mouth to see whether the object has been dislodged
  • Try turning her on to her back if the above actions don’t work, and give five sharp chest compressions, in the middle of her chest

Good to know: Burns are a leading cause of injury or death in young children in South Africa, with an estimated 20% of deaths in children under the age of one year as a result of burns from fire, electricity, chemicals, or boiling water.

The best course of action

Remember that the extent to which a burn will heal often depends on the quality of first-aid received immediately after the injury. If the burn is minor to moderate, it’s essential to run cold water over the affected area for at least 20 minutes. This may help to limit the damage to deeper skin tissue, and is also effective for chemical burns as the water can help to dilute the harmful substance. However, in the case of extensive burns, do not cool with water for too long because this could cause hypothermia. Avoid putting ice on the burn, as this can further damage the tissue and never apply oily substances, pastes, turmeric, egg white, toothpaste, or topical ointments to the burn. You can use a burn dressing with a bandage, but don’t use cotton wool, as this can increase the risk of infection. Never peel off or open blistered skin, as this can expose your child to infection.

Good to know: If the burn seems more serious, either call an emergency medical service provider, such as Netcare 911 (082 911) or wrap your child in a clean sheet and rush to the nearest medical facility, whichever will be faster and more appropriate in the circumstances. As each burn is different, give the call operator at the emergency operations centre as much information as possible. This will help them to give you the most appropriate advice and assistance.

Wounds and bleeding

Seeing your child covered in blood is scary, but the best thing you can do is stay calm and deal with the problem. Always remember that head wounds bleed profusely and often look far worse than they are.

The best course of action

Remember that no matter how severe, all bleeding can be controlled, says Dr Padayachee-Govender. “The best way to treat any form of bleeding is by applying direct pressure to the wound with your fingers or hand. As soon as possible, place a clean dressing over the wound. Apply a bulky pad extending beyond the edges of the wound, and then firmly bandage it. If the wound is gaping or deep, go to your nearest hospital immediately.

Good to know: If your child has been cut by something sharp, like a piece of glass or a sharp stone, for example, leave any embedded particles in the wound as removing them can increase the bleeding. Rather cover with a clean cloth and seek professional medical help.

Anaphylactic shock

Anaphylactic shock is a severe whole-body allergic, and possibly life-threatening, reaction to a substance. It happens immediately after exposure to the allergen. Peanuts, penicillin, and bee stings are among the best-known allergens.


  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing, as well as choking or wheezing
  • Pain in the abdomen and/or chest
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Feeling faint
  • A severe headache
  • General or localised skin changes, such as a rash or itching.

The best course of action

Stay calm and call for assistance. If the allergen has been previously diagnosed, your doctor will have told you what to do (such as administering antihistamines or an adrenalin injection). Lie your child down with her feet elevated, until medical help arrives or go to the nearest doctor or hospital for treatment.