Growth and Development

Is it a Medical Emergency?

Even healthy kids get hurt or sick sometimes. 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 harder to determine whether an injury or illness needs the attention of a medical professional or can be treated at home.

Different problems require different levels of care. 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, stitches, and care 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. These might include 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, 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. ERs can be crowded and it can take a long time for minor problems to be treated.

Should I Go to the ER?

Here are some reasons to go to the ER :

  • if your child has difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • if your child has had a change in mental status, such as suddenly becoming unusually sleepy or difficult to wake, disoriented, or confused
  • if your child has a cut in the skin that is bleeding and won't stop
  • if your child has a stiff neck along with a fever
  • if your child has a rapid heartbeat that doesn't slow down
  • if your child accidentally ingests a poisonous substance or too much medication
  • if 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 can talk with you and determine whether you should go to the ER. On weekends and at night, doctors have answering services that allow them to get in touch with you if you leave a message.

Urgent Care Centers

Sometimes an injury or an illness isn't life threatening but needs medical attention on the same day. If that's the case, and your doctor doesn't have office hours at the time, consider going to an urgent care center.

Urgent care centers usually allow you to walk in without an appointment, just as you would in an ER. But they're equipped and staffed to treat minor, non-critical issues. Patients usually will be seen by a doctor and also might be able to get X-rays or blood drawn.

Most of these clinics offer extended hours on evenings and on weekends for patients to receive treatment when the family doctor is not available. Some are open 24 hours a day every day. In addition to accepting walk-in patients, some allow you to call ahead to be seen.

Some cases where you might take your child to an urgent care center include:

  • cuts
  • minor injuries
  • vomiting or diarrhea
  • ear pain
  • sore throat
  • infected bug bites
  • mild allergic reactions
  • suspected sprain or broken bone
  • minor animal bites

The doctors who work at freestanding urgent care centers often are ER doctors or family physicians who focus on treating adult and pediatric diseases. Some centers are also staffed by nurse practitioners and physician assistants. The ERs in many children's hospitals have special sections similar to an urgent care center for treatment of minor injuries and illnesses.

Find out about the urgent care centers near you — before a situation comes up where you need to go to one. Ask your doctor about local facilities. In general, you should find a clinic that meets the state licensing requirements and is staffed by doctors who are board certified in their specialties, such as pediatrics, family medicine, or emergency medicine. It's also a good idea to find out if the center accepts your insurance plan.

Talk with your doctor before your child gets sick about how to handle emergencies and ask about the doctor's policy on addressing medical needs outside of office hours. Having that information ahead of time will mean one less thing to worry about when your child is sick!

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: April 2013



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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses and treatment, consult your doctor.

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