The Panicky Parent's Guide to Kids' Health

Coughs & Headaches

Scary symptom: Your child has had a nagging cough for weeks.

You think: It has to be asthma!

It's probably just: A lingering cough due to a respiratory problem. If your child had a cold and is still stuffed up 10 or more days later, it may be a sinus infection, especially if he has a fever. Postnasal drip can irritate the throat, causing a cough. But if your child's cough started out dry and became wet, he may have bronchitis and should see a doctor. Bronchitis is often caused by a virus, so you probably won't get antibiotics; rest, fluids, and pain relievers can help him feel better, as will bronchodilators, which expand the airways.

You may be tempted to rely on over-the-counter cough syrups, but they're often not a big help and can cause dangerous side effects in kids under 2. Try using saline nose drops and placing a cool-mist humidifier in your child's bedroom to thin his mucus instead, says Ken Haller, MD, associate professor of pediatrics at the Saint Louis School of Medicine.

When to worry: Suspect asthma if your child's cough sounds dry and hacking, occurs only in certain situations (exercise and cold air are common triggers), or if he has breathing problems (wheezing when he exhales, flaring nostrils, or rapid, shallow breathing -- all signs he's in respiratory distress and needs immediate medical attention). Asthma has a strong genetic link, so be particularly suspicious if you have a family history of the disease. Left untreated, asthma can damage your child's lungs, so see your pediatrician ASAP for a diagnosis.

Scary symptom: Your child complains of frequent headaches.

You think: What if it's a brain tumor?

It's probably just: A headache. Congestion can put pressure on nerve endings, so sinus infections and allergies are often the culprit. Look for telltale symptoms such as a runny nose; itchy, puffy eyes; and chronic postnasal drip. "School-age children can also get tension headaches, or they'll claim they have a headache to avoid school," says Dr. Brown. If your child is pain-free on weekends or it mysteriously only hurts during math class, you may have your answer. Treat the root of the headache to prevent them and use pain relievers like acetaminophen for a fast fix.

Another possibility: Your kid may have a migraine, a debilitating headache that sometimes causes nausea and vision problems. Migraines don't usually pop up until a child is 9 or 10, but kids as young as 3 or 4 aren't immune, especially if family members are also prone to them. If you suspect your child has a migraine, give her a pain reliever and let her rest in a dark room; then, see your pediatrician. It's unusual for kids under 5 or 6 to have headaches, so don't ignore them.

When to worry: Although brain tumors are rare, they do occur. One red flag: "Headaches associated with brain tumors are often severe and wake children up from sleep because lying down increases pressure on the brain," says Gary Emmett, MD, director of general pediatrics at Thomas Jefferson University, in Philadelphia. Your child may also complain of vision trouble and have balance or coordination problems. If that's the case, see your pediatrician right away.

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