Commonly Misdiagnosed Symptoms in Children

Commonly Misdiagnosed Symptoms in Children

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years as both a parent and a pediatrician, it’s that things aren’t always as they seem, and it always pays to consider all your options before jumping to conclusions. This certainly applies to some of the more common pediatric symptoms that parents, child care providers, and even pediatricians routinely have to make sense of – from fevers to pink eyes and tummy aches. While it’s always necessary to consult your own pediatrician before drawing any conclusions regarding a diagnosis for your child, I want to share with you some of the symptoms that are most often misdiagnosed.

  • Fevers – It’s a Matter of Degree. Fever can definitely be a sign of infection, but all too often parents and caregivers make the mistake of calling what is technically considered a normal temperature a fever. While normal body temperature is generally defined as 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit and a fever is considered to be a rectal temperature of 100.4, a child’s (or adult’s) temperature can vary as much as 2 degrees over the course of the day. The solution: if you’re concerned, it’s always best to simply report it, along with your method of temperature-taking, to your pediatrician.
  • Pink eyes. Translated into medical jargon, pink eye is also referred to as “conjunctivitis” – a condition most parents automatically assume is an eye infection. By definition, however, conjunctivitis refers to inflammation or irritation (-itis) of the lining of the eye (conjunctiva) that makes it appear pink or red. Yes – viral or bacterial eye infections are a common cause of pink eye, but it helps to keep in mind that pink eyes can be caused by other things as well, including allergies, a scratch to the surface of the eye, or getting something (such as sand or dirt) in one’s eye.
  • Tummy troubles. In general, children’s tummy troubles can throw parents for a loop. While diarrhea is commonly caused by a “run-of-the-mill” viral infection (sometimes mistakenly referred to as “the stomach flu” – additional comments on flu below), it can also be the result of eating contaminated or spoiled food (think salmonella or e. coli infections, for example), or even be the result of drinking too much juice – a condition referred to as “toddler’s diarrhea.” In general, it takes context to figure out the cause of diarrhea, such as whether fever or other symptoms are present and how long the symptoms have lasted (to name a few). Stomach pains can also pose a challenge, because in addition to being associated with vomiting and diarrhea-type illnesses, they can show up in children who are anxious, and can even be quite severe as a result of constipation or strep throat!
  • Potty accidents. While we’re on the subject of constipation, it’s also worth noting that children who start having potty accidents without any other explanation (think infection, defiance, infection, or distraction) may actually have constipation as an underlying cause. 
  • The “true flu.” I am a big believer in the approach of calling things as they are – an approach I find particularly important in the case of the flu. That’s why I’ve taken to calling influenza – caused by a very specific set of viruses and known to cause potentially serious illness – the “true flu.” This is to clearly distinguish the “true flu” from all of the common routine viral illnesses responsible for most of the coughs and colds kids get each year, as well as those routine stomach viruses often given the misnomer of “stomach flu.” Why is this so important? Because the “true flu” viruses have significantly greater potential to cause serious illness. And unlike the common cold, we are fortunate enough to have a vaccine available to help prevent the flu that you and your children should be sure to get, if you haven’t already! 

On that note, let me wish you all a happy, healthy, and hopefully a symptom-free cold and flu season!


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