Background: Pre-school children are frequent users of health services, but little contemporary data are available describing their symptoms or why they consult.
Objective: To describe symptom and consultation prevalence in pre-school children and to identify the socio-demographic factor or factors associated with consultations for those symptoms.
Methods: Prospective cohort study of 13,617 pre-school children living in south-west England. Parents completed questionnaires asking about symptoms and consultations for those symptoms at six, 18, 30, 42 and 57 months.
Results: During the pre-school years, all children experienced one or more symptoms, most commonly cold, cough, high temperature, vomiting or diarrhoea. Ninety seven percent consulted a doctor at least once, most commonly for cough, high fever and/or earache. Lower parity was most strongly and consistently associated with higher consultation rates.
Conclusions: Fever, respiratory and gastro-intestinal symptoms are a normal part of pre-school life. Research of acute conditions in young children could focus on the most common symptoms leading to consultation, namely cough, fever and earache. Efforts to support parents' help seeking decision making might usefully be targeted at first time parents.