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.
It pays to think about the right place to go. Treatment in an emergency department can cost 2 - 3 times more than the same care in your doctor’s office. Think about this and the other issues listed below 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 for:
Stopped breathing or 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
Seizure that lasted 3 - 5 minutes
Bleeding that can’t be stopped
Go to an emergency department or call 911 for help for problems such as:
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
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 (dehydrated)
When to Go to an Urgent Care Clinic
When your child has a problem, do not wait too long to get medical care. If the problem is not life threatening or risking disability, but you are concerned and you cannot see the doctor soon enough, go to an urgent care clinic.
The kinds of problems that an urgent care clinic can deal with include:
Common illnesses, such as colds, the flu, earaches, sore throats, minor headaches, low-grade fevers, and limited rashes
Minor injuries, such as sprains, bruises, minor cuts and burns, minor broken bones, or minor eye injuries
If You’re Not Sure, Talk to Someone
If you are not sure what to do, and your child does not have one of the serious conditions listed above, call your child's doctor. If the office is not open, your phone call will be forwarded to someone. Describe your child's symptoms to the doctor who answers your call, and find out what you should do.
Your child's doctor or health insurance company may also offer a nurse telephone advice hotline. Call this number and tell the nurse your child's symptoms for advice on what to do.
Before your child has a medical problem, learn what your choices are. Check the website of your health insurance company. Put these telephone numbers in the memory of your phone:
Your child's doctor
Emergency department your child’s doctor recommends
Poison control center
Nurse telephone advice line
Urgent care clinic
Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.