Is This Really “That”?

This week’s guest columnist is Dr. Babak Amrollahie, a Family Practice resident at the University Hospital and Clinics here in Lafayette.

I recently saw a 4 year-old named Mary in the Emergency Department.  She vomited once while eating lunch, and was brought in by both parents for evaluation.  Mother appeared more concerned about the episode, and said “Mary is always happy and active, but she’s acting tired since she vomited.  I’m always with her, she’s not herself.”  However, the father said “Mary only vomited because she doesn’t like pickles, so she spit them out.  Then she ate some of my fries and finished her lemonade.”  At this point mom looked at me and said, “I’m worried about food poisoning.”

Most visits to the ER are not emergencies.  However, it’s reasonable for parents to be concerned about a symptom like vomiting.  Parenting isn’t easy, and when folks see their child in distress, it often sticks them right in the heart.  So how do we decide that this is a benign problem, which only needs us to reassure the parent; or decide that this could be a serious problem that requires more attention?

FIrst of course, we listen to the story of what happened.  This story is the “medical history,” which also includes asking about related symptoms, and the child’s past illnesses.  Then we examine the child, to match the story with what’s happening in the kid herself.

In Mary’s case, we have a girl who vomited only one time, which typically isn’t severe enough to worry about bad things like dehydration or appendicitis.  When I examined her, I saw a child who was active and playful, with plenty of moisture in her mouth, good circulation, and normal vital signs.  This confirmed that Mary was doing well.  I reassured mom that Mary’s condition was mild, that she was going to be okay, and mom was relieved.

Parents can do this exercise at home, and avoid a costly and time-consuming ER visit.  If your child is eating and drinking well, breathing normally, and active, they are probably not having an emergency.  However, if they are acting excessively tired, vomiting for several hours in a row, in severe pain, or having trouble breathing, then it’s time to see a doctor; if not your own, then in the ER.

Omar is a 9 year-old boy whose mother is concerned about a rash that appeared on his arm. It first appeared last week, and then went away a few days later.  It looked like a sunburn, according to mom, but she was worried that it was something else bad.

Mother had not discussed the rash with Omar’s pediatrician since “every time I call the office, they give me an appointment for the next 2 or 3 days.”  Like with Mary above, the first thing is to take a history: was the rash itchy, did it hurt, were there any accompanying symptoms like fever, cough, or diarrhea?  Mother thought it might be the sunscreen she applied, though she said “it’s not a new brand, he’s used this before.”

Next is the physical exam.  I checked Omar’s skin for lingering signs of the rash, and also did the basics- listened to his lungs and heart, felt his belly, looked in his mouth and throat.  There was no rash, and he otherwise was well, an active and polite 9 year-old boy.  Mom was happy to hear that Omar was fine, we discussed the possibilities of what caused his rash (sunscreen irritation versus sunburn on a patch she missed with the screen), and they went on their way.

Many parents come to the Emergency Department for questions that worry them, and often because they can’t get into their child’s doctor.  These worries can be profound- is this cancer, or in Omar’s case, is this a sign of a potentially bad allergic reaction in the future?  When parents have these questions that keep them up at night, they come to the ER.

Fortunately, the answer is most often benign.  And if the child looks fine in the basic ways- is eating and drinking, is breathing comfortably, is active, then the answer can wait until the next available appointment with your doctor.  If the child is truly sick, with persistent vomiting, shortness of breath, worsening fatigue, and you can’t get into your regular practice, then by all means, come in!

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