December 11, 2011

With cold season comes healthy question


---- — With cold weather on its way, local schools will soon be full of runny noses, flying germs and excessive phlegm.

What this means for parents is we have to hone an underrated but important child-rearing skill: How to tell when your child is actually sick.

This can be more difficult than the non-parent can imagine, for two reasons. The first is that some children lack the communication skills or the self-awareness to accurately describe their level of illness.

One of my sons is constantly suffering from one thing or another. My foot hurts, my arm hurts, my head hurts, my throat feels funny, my hair is all tingly, I can't feel my nose at all, I'm bleeding internally.

Sometimes he's really injured or really sick. Other times his pain or discomfort disappears within minutes.

This was most recently a problem when visiting my dad at Thanksgiving. My son complained that his stomach hurt. We figured it was one too many cookies … until he vomited all over the living room. Again. And again.

The second difficulty is that children are devious. Can you really believe what they say and do?

Even in my own time as a perfect son, there were occasions — I was unprepared for an exam, intimidated by a bully, scared that I might have to talk to a girl — when I would fake sickness.

I would let out a hacking cough, wheeze occasionally and completely refuse solid food. How could they be sure, one way or the other?

Parental diagnostic skills tend to be rather rudimentary. Still there are things you should and shouldn't do when trying to determine if your children are a danger to themselves and others, or if they just need a healthy dose of algebra class.

▶ Do not plug your child's symptoms into an Internet diagnosis page.

"He says his throat hurts … no, no, no! Esophageal cancer? At age 7? Noooooooo!"

On the Internet, a rash becomes leprosy, diarrhea becomes Ebola and a low-grade fever means your child could be turning into the living dead. Do not watch the TV show "House," as this will have a similar effect.

▶ Be skeptical of the sounds coming out of your child's mouth. Sounds coming from your child's intestines, however, should not be ignored.

▶ A high ankle sprain can be faked by limping and wincing painfully. Bone protruding through the skin, however, is very difficult to fake. If your child has found a way to do this, they've earned the day off.

▶ Through sheer force of will, a child can make his face turn red. This does not necessarily signify sickness — they could just as easily have been drinking too much beer or smoking too many cigars.

It is very difficult, however, for a child to turn their skin blue, green, yellow, gray or purple. Call your doctor.

▶ Temperature alone doesn't tell the story. A degree or two higher or lower than 98.6 is normal. If it's over 103, you may want to check with someone. If it's over 120, either they're faking or they're already dead.

Always keep an eye on your children for every second that the thermometer is in their possession. They will boil, burn or microwave it to get the desired result if you give them half the chance.

▶ If your child's head spins around, contact an exorcist, not a doctor. This is an expense covered by your better HMOs. It is not, however, an excuse to miss school.

▶ If your child vomits all over your parents' living room, help with the cleanup and apologize, over and over again. Consider strapping a bucket around your child's neck.

If your child makes retching sounds in the bathroom and then claims to have thrown up — but flushed the evidence away — offer them a plate of steaming asparagus, rancid meat and their own sweaty socks. See if you can recreate the event.

▶ If your child has a hacking cough, wheezes occasionally and refuses solid food, ask them if they have an exam, an angry bully or social-anxiety problems. Then wrap them in aluminum foil, attach some wires and a car battery, and tell them you saw this great lie detector machine on "Mythbusters" ...

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