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3 February 2010, 13:16 | Updated: 3 February 2010, 14:31
Researchers in Oxford are advising GPs to always check the temperature of children with coughs and colds.
A list of 'red flag' warning signs have been drawn up to help make sure doctors don't miss serious infections like meningitis. Because such conditions are now rare in developed countries, they are difficult to diagnose in children.
Dr Matthew Thompson, from Oxford University, said: "For doctors, it's a bit like finding a needle in a haystack. Serious infections are rare and getting increasingly rarer thanks to vaccinations. Identifying that one child out of all those many with minor ailments is difficult. It is complicated further as the child may be seen at any early stage of infection before it is possible to recognise its severity."
The researchers suggest GPs need to look out for rapid breathing, poor blood circulation at the skin, and rashes of small purple/red spots which could indicate that a child has more than a minor cough or cold. Doctors are also being urged to watch out for a temperature of more than 40C among children brought into surgeries and assessment units.
The researchers want to develop guidelines for GPs so that children with infections are referred to hospitals quickly and only when necessary.
Dr Ann Van den Bruel, another member of the Oxford team, said: "Doctors should routinely check for these warning signs in every sick child they see. For example, not all GPs will check a child's temperature, whereas we would now suggest this is done on all occasions."
She added: "Parents shouldn't try to assess these red flags themselves, it would only add to any uncertainty or anxiety they may already be feeling. However, parents can take heart that we found they are very good at picking up signs that their child is unwell."