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Is It an Emergency?

Even healthy kids get hurt and sick. In some cases, you will know that you need to head straight to the emergency room (ER) at the nearest hospital. In other cases, it's more difficult to determine whether an injury or an illness needs the attention of a medical professional or can be treated at home.

Different problems require different levels of care. And when your child needs some sort of medical help, you have many options:

  • Handle the problem at home. Many minor injuries and illnesses, including some cuts, certain types of rashes, coughs, colds, scrapes, and bruises, can be handled with home care and over-the-counter (OTC) treatments.
  • Call your doctor. If you're unsure of the level of medical care your child needs, your doctor — or a nurse who works in the office — can help you decide what steps to take and how.
  • Visit an urgent care center. An urgent care center can be a good option for non-emergencies at night and on weekends when your doctor may not be in the office. At these centers, you can usually get things like X-rays for minor injuries that aren't life threatening yet require medical attention on the same day.
  • Visit a hospital emergency room. An ER — also called an emergency department (ED) — can handle a wide variety of serious problems, such as severe bleeding, head trauma, seizures, meningitis, breathing difficulties, dehydration, and serious bacterial infections.
  • Call 911 for an ambulance. Some situations are so serious that you need the help of trained medical personnel on the way to the hospital. You may need an ambulance if your child: has been in a car accident, has a head or neck injury, has ingested too much medication and is now hard to rouse, or is not breathing or is turning blue. In these cases, dial 911 for an ambulance.

As a parent, it can be hard to make these judgment calls. You don't want to rush to the ER if it isn't really an emergency and can wait until a doctor's appointment. On the other hand, you don't want to hesitate to get medical attention if your child needs treatment right away. As your kids grow — and inevitably gets sick or has an accident — you'll learn to trust yourself to decide when it's an emergency.

Remember that in cases when you know the problem is minor, it's best to contact your child's doctor, go to an urgent care center, or handle it at home. Sometimes, ERs can be crowded and it can take a long time for minor problems to be treated.

Should I go to the emergency room?

Here are some reasons to go to the ER:

  • Your child has difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Your child has had a change in mental status, such as suddenly becoming unusually sleepy or difficult to rouse, disoriented, or confused
  • Your child has a cut in the skin that is bleeding and won't stop
  • Your child has a stiff neck along with a fever
  • Your child has a rapid heartbeat that doesn't slow down
  • Your child accidentally ingests a poisonous substance or too much medication
  • Your child has had more than minor head trauma

Other situations may seem alarming, but don't require a trip to the ER. The list below includes some of the symptoms that may require calling your doctor:

  • High fever
  • Ear pain
  • Pain in the abdomen
  • Headache that doesn't go away
  • Rash
  • Mild wheezing
  • Persistent cough

When in doubt, call your doctor. Even if the doctor isn't available, the office nurse will be able to talk with you and determine whether you should take your child to the ER. On weekends and evenings, doctors have answering services that allow them to get in touch with you if you leave a message.