The Emergency Room: When Should You Take Your Child?


Whenever your child is sick or injured, you need to decide how serious the problem is and how soon to get medical care. This will help you choose whether it is best to call your doctor, go to an urgent care clinic or go to an emergency department right away.

Treatment in an emergency department can cost nearly three times more than the same care in your doctor’s office. Think about this and the other issues listed below, provided by the National Institutes of Health, when deciding.

Signs of an Emergency

How quickly does your child need care? If your child could die or be permanently disabled, it is an emergency.

Call 911 to have the emergency team come to you right away if you cannot wait, such as in these situations:

  • Choking
  • Your child has stopped breathing or is turning blue
  • Possible poisoning (call the nearest Poison Control Center)
  • Head injury with passing out, throwing up or not behaving normally
  • Injury to neck or spine
  • Severe burn
  • Seizure that lasted 3–5 minutes
  • Bleeding that can’t be stopped

Go to an emergency department or call 911 for help with problems such as:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Passing out, fainting
  • Severe allergic reaction with trouble breathing, swelling, hives
  • High fever with headache and stiff neck
  • High fever that doesn’t get better with medicine
  • Suddenly hard to wake up, too sleepy, confused
  • Suddenly not able to speak, see, walk or move
  • Heavy bleeding
  • Deep wound
  • Serious burn
  • Coughing or throwing up blood
  • Possible broken bone, loss of movement, especially if the bone is pushing through the skin
  • A body part near an injured bone is numb, tingling, weak, cold or pale
  • Unusual or bad headache or chest pain
  • Fast heartbeat that doesn’t slow down
  • Throwing up or loose stools that don’t stop
  • Mouth is dry, no tears, no wet diapers in 18 hours, soft spot in the skull is sunken (dehydration)

When to Call Your Doctor

When your child has a problem, don’t wait too long to get medical care. If the problem is not life-threatening or risking disability, but you are concerned and your doctor’s clinic is not open, call the after-hours line for your doctor’s office. Many clinics will connect you with an on-call doctor or nurse who can help give you advice. They can also help you decide whether you need to be seen immediately or whether you can wait until the clinic opens again.

The kinds of problems your doctor’s office can help with include:

Common illnesses, such as:

  • Colds
  • Flu
  • Earaches
  • Sore throats
  • Minor headaches
  • Low-grade fevers
  • Limited rashes

Minor injuries, such as:

  • Sprains
  • Bruises
  • Minor cuts and burns
  • Minor broken bones
  • Minor eye injuries

If you can’t reach your doctor’s office, you can go to an urgent care clinic.