How to examine a sick person thoroughly.
To find out the needs of a sick person, first you must ask important questions and then examine him carefully and thoroughly. You should look for signs and symptoms that help you tell how ill the person is and what kind of sickness he may have.
Always examine the person where there is good light, preferably in the sunlight — never in a dark room.
There are certain basic things to ask and to look for in anyone who is sick. These include things the sick person feels or reports (symptoms), as well as things you notice on examining him (signs). These signs can be especially important in babies and persons unable to talk.
When you examine a sick person, write down your findings and keep them for the health worker in case he is needed.
ASK THESE QUESTIONS
Start by asking the person about her sickness. Be sure to ask the following:
What bothers you most right now?
What makes you feel better or worse?
How and when did your sickness begin?
Have you had this same trouble before, or has anyone else in
your family or neighborhood had it?
Continue with other questions in order to learn the details of the illness. For example, if the sick person has a pain, ask her:
Where does it hurt? (Ask her to point to the exact place with one finger.)
Does it hurt all the time, or off and on?
What is the pain like? (sharp? dull? burning?)
Can you sleep with the pain?
If the sick person is a baby who still does not talk, look for signs of pain. Notice his movements and how he cries. (For example, a child with an earache sometimes rubs the side of his head or pulls at his ear.)
GENERAL CONDITION OF HEALTH
Before touching the sick person, look at him carefully. Observe how ill or weak he looks, the way he moves, how he breathes, and how clear his mind seems. Look for signs of dehydration and of shock. Notice whether the person looks well nourished or poorly nourished. Has he been losing weight? When a person has lost weight slowly over a long period of time, he may have a chronic illness (one that lasts a long time). Also note the color of the skin and eyes. These sometimes change when a person is sick. (Dark skin can hide color changes. So look at parts of the body where the skin is pale, such as palms of the hands or soles of the feet, the fingernails, or the insides of the lips and eyelids.)
- Paleness, especially of the lips and inside the eyelids, is a sign of anemia. Skin may also go lighter as a result of tuberculosis, or kwashiorkor.
- Darkening of the skin may be a sign of starvation.
- Bluish skin, especially blueness or darkness of the lips and fingernails, may mean serious problems with breathing or with the heart. Blue-gray color in an unconscious child may be a sign of cerebral malaria.
- A gray-white coloring, with cool moist skin, often means a person is in shock.
- Yellow color (jaundice) of the skin and eyes may result from disease in the liver (hepatitis, cirrhosis, or amebic abscess, or gallbladder. It may also occur in newborn babies, and in children born with sickle cell disease. Look also at the skin when a light is shining across it from one side. This can show the earliest sign of measles rash on the face of a feverish child.
It is often wise to take a sick person’s temperature, even if he does not seem to have a fever. If the person is very sick, take the temperature at least 4 times each day and write it down. If there is no thermometer, you can get an idea of the temperature by putting the back of one hand on the sick person’s forehead and the other on your own or that of another healthy person. If the sick person has a fever, you should feel the difference. It is important to find out when and how the fever comes, how long it lasts, and how it goes away. This may help you identify the disease. Not every fever is malaria, though in some countries it is often treated as such. Remember other possible causes. For example:
- Common cold, and other virus infections. The fever is usually mild.
- Typhoid causes a fever that goes on rising for 5 days. Malaria medicine does not help.
- Tuberculosis sometimes causes a mild fever in the afternoon. At night the person often sweats, and the fever goes down.
Pay special attention to the way the sick person breathes—the depth (deep or shallow), rate (how often breaths are taken), and difficulty. Notice if both sides of the chest move equally when she breathes.
If you have a watch or simple timer, count the number of breaths per minute (when the person is quiet). Between 12 and 20 breaths per minute is normal for adults and older children. Up to 30 breaths a minute is normal for younger children, and 40 for babies. People with a high fever or serious respiratory illness breathe more quickly than normal. For example, more than 30 shallow breaths a minute in an adult usually means pneumonia, as does 60 breaths a minute for a newborn baby.
Listen carefully to the sound of the breaths. For example:
• A whistle or wheeze and difficulty breathing out can mean asthma.
• A gurgling or snoring noise and difficult breathing in an unconscious person may mean the tongue, mucus (slime or pus), or something else is stuck in the throat and does not let enough air get through.
Look for ‘sucking in’ of the skin between ribs and at the angle of the neck (behind the collar bone) when the person breathes in. This means air has trouble getting through. Consider the possibility of something stuck in the throat, pneumonia, asthma, or bronchitis (mild sucking in).
If the person has a cough, ask if it keeps her from sleeping. Find out if she coughs up mucus, how much, its color, and if there is blood in it. Pay attention to the strength, the rate, and the regularity of the pulse. If you have a watch or timer, count the pulses per minute.
The pulse gets much faster with exercise and when a person is nervous, frightened, or has a fever. As a general rule, the pulse increases 20 beats per minute for each degree (°C) rise in fever. When a person is very ill, take the pulse often and write it down along with the temperature and rate of breathing.
It is important to notice changes in the pulse rate. For example:
- A weak, rapid pulse can mean a state of shock.
- A very rapid, very slow, or irregular pulse could mean heart trouble.
- A relatively slow pulse in a person with a high fever may be a sign of typhoid.
Look at the color of the white part of the eyes. Is it normal, red, or yellow? Also note any changes in the sick person’s vision. Have the person slowly move her eyes up and down and from side to side. Jerking or uneven movement may be a sign of brain damage. Pay attention to the size and color of the pupils (the black ‘window’ in the center of the eye). If they are very large, it can mean a state of shock. If they are very large, or very small, it can mean poison or the effect of certain drugs. If there is a white glow, it can mean cataracts or cancer.
Look at both eyes and note any difference between the two, especially in the size of the pupils:
A big difference in the size of the pupils is almost always a medical emergency.
- If the eye with the larger pupil hurts so badly it causes vomiting, the person probably has GLAUCOMA.
- If the eye with the smaller pupil hurts a great deal, the person may have IRITIS, a very serious problem.
- Difference in the size of the pupils of an unconscious person or a person who has had a recent head injury may mean brain damage. It may also mean STROKE.
- Always compare the pupils of a person who is unconscious or has had a head injury.
EARS, THROAT, AND NOSE
Ears: Always check for signs of pain and infection in the ears-especially in a child with fever or a cold. A baby who cries a lot or pulls at his ear often has an ear infection. Pull the ear gently. If this increases pain, the infection is probably in the tube of the ear (ear canal). Also look for redness or pus inside the ear.
A small flashlight or penlight will help. But never put a stick, wire, or other hard object inside the ear.
Find out if the person hears well, or if one side is more deaf than the other. Rub your thumb and fingers together near the person’s ear to see if he can hear it. For deafness and ringing of the ears see page.
Throat and Mouth: With a torch (flashlight) or sunlight examine the mouth and throat. To do this hold down tongue with a spoon handle or have the person say ‘ahhhhh…’ Notice if the throat is red and if the tonsils (2 lumps at the back of the throat) are swollen or have spots with pus. Also examine the mouth for sores, inflamed gums, sore tongue, rotten or abscessed teeth and other problems. Nose: Is the nose runny or plugged? (Notice if and how a baby breathes through
his nose.) Shine a light inside and look for mucus, pus, blood; also look for redness, swelling, or bad smell. Check for signs of sinus trouble or hayfever.
It is important to examine the sick person’s whole body, no matter how mild the sickness may seem. Babies and children should be undressed completely. Look carefully for anything that is not normal, including:
- sores, wounds, or splinters
- rashes or welts
- spots, patches, or any unusual markings
- inflammation (sign of infection with redness, heat, pain and swelling)
- swelling or puffiness
- swollen lymph nodes (little lumps in the neck, the armpits, or the groin)
- abnormal lumps or masses
- unusual thinning or loss of hair, o loss of its color or shine
- loss of eyebrows
Always examine little children between the buttocks, in the genital area, between the fingers and toes, behind the ears, and in the hair (for lice, scabies, ringworm, rashes, and sores).