The Most Common Mysterious Pediatric Symptoms

It can be scary and frustrating when your child has a mysterious symptom, the cause of which is hard to diagnose or discover.

Does your child have some exotic illness, a strange virus, or is it all in his head?

Mother and Father with Sick Child.

Tim Hawley / Getty Images

Classic Pediatric Symptoms

Fortunately, children usually have more classic symptoms when they get sick, such as the barky cough of croup, sandpapery rash of scarlet fever, or slapped cheeks rash of fifth disease.

Other classic pediatric symptoms that are easy to recognize can include a child with:

  • A high fever followed by a rash after the fever breaks: roseola
  • Newborns with projectile vomiting that goes across the room: pyloric stenosis
  • Bilious (dark green) vomiting: an intestinal obstruction or blockage
  • A honey-colored crusted rash: impetigo
  • Currant jelly stools (red mucousy stools): intussusception
  • A 'hurt' arm that isn't moving it and is keeping it close to his abdomen after it was yanked or pulled: nursemaid's elbow
  • Polyuria (urinating a lot), polydipsia (drinking a lot), and weight loss: diabetes mellitus

With some of these patterns of classic symptoms, you can make your diagnosis once you read the history, even before you see the patient.

Mysterious Pediatric Symptoms

It is much harder to figure out what might be causing your child to be sick if his symptoms are a bit more mysterious.

These types of mysterious symptoms, especially when they occur by themselves or linger for long periods of time, can include:

  • Persistent fever
  • Skin rashes
  • Myalgias (muscle aches)
  • Arthralgias (joint aches)
  • Arthritis
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Swollen glands

When severe, they can lead to school avoidance and withdrawing from friends and social activities.

Causes of Mysterious Symptoms

Although parents and other family members usually jump to conclusions when a child has mysterious symptoms and think he has either cancer, such as leukemia or lymphoma, or juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA), it is much more common that the child has an atypical presentation of a much more common disorder, such as mono, cat scratch fever, Lyme disease, etc. or other viral and bacterial infections.

Symptoms may also seem mysterious when they are caused by less common conditions that some pediatricians simply don't see very often, such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, ehrlichiosis, Kawasaki disease, Henoch-Schonlein purpura (HSP), hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), rheumatic fever, or teen onset chronic fatigue syndrome.

Tests for Mysterious Symptoms

Be aware that there is no single test to help you figure out what is causing these types of mysterious symptoms and it may take several visits to the doctor, seeing a specialist, and multiple tests before your pediatrician figures out the cause. Initial testing might include a complete blood count, basic metabolic panel, thyroid function tests, ESR, and CRP. Other tests targeting specific infections, such as mono, cat scratch fever, and strep, etc., might also be done.

Additional testing will likely depend on how sick your child is, how long he has been sick, and any recent travel or exposures to other people who are sick.

Any treatment will also likely be determined on how long your child has been sick and test results.

And keep in mind that just because a child's symptoms can't be easily explained, it doesn't mean that they aren't real or that the child is faking.

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  • Zeitlin, Sue Recognising factitious and induced illness in children. Paediatrics and Child Health, 26 July 2016.