Should You Take Your Child to the Emergency Room, Urgent Care—or Call the Doctor?

Published on 
June 24, 2020

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By Katie Sweeney 

As a parent, your number one goal is keeping your child safe and healthy. When is it time to head to the emergency department (ED)—and when is it best to call your child’s doctor, or go to an urgent care center? 

When in doubt, call your doctor 

If you’re debating between the ED, urgent care, or maybe waiting until the morning—pick up the phone and call your doctor. Most offices have an after-hours line or a nurse or doctor on call who can help you decide.  

Trust your instinct. “I tell parents, if you know in your heart that your child has to go to the ED, just go,” says Christopher Tolcher, MD, FAAP, a pediatrician with Agoura-West Valley Pediatrics—part of the CHLA Health Network.  

When to go to the emergency department 

Go to the ED if your child has a severe injury or illness—something that is life-threatening or could cause harm if not treated right away. 

Head to the ED if your child: 

  • Unusually tired or sleepy, or is acting differently than usual 
  • Is in severe, persistent pain 
  • Has trouble breathing, or is breathing fast or deep 
  • Has an injury that seems severe, such as: 
    • A broken bone or injury where the body part looks deformed or out of alignment, there is numbness or a lot of swelling, or the child is in severe pain  
    • A cut that is large or deep—or a large cut to the head, chest or abdomen 
    • A head injury causing vomiting, a headache, confusion or loss of consciousness  
    • A fall from a significant height 
  • Ingests a poison, or too much/the wrong medicine: 
    • If your child is acting OK, call the Poison Control Center first: 1-800-222-1222
    • If your child has trouble breathing, collapses or can’t wake up after being poisoned, call 911.  
  • Is under 2 months of age with a fever of 100.4 or higher (Call your doctor first.) 
  • Has a high fever AND a stiff neck and headache  
  • Has a fever AND a widespread purple-red rash  
  • Is very dehydrated—diapers are dry, eyes are sunken, child is not peeing—especially after vomiting or diarrhea, or is very weak—can’t move much, drink or talk 

When to call 911 

Sometimes, there’s no time to call the doctor or even drive to the ED. If it’s a life-threatening emergency, when minutes count, call 911. Examples include:  

  • Choking 
  • Child is not breathing—or lips are turning blue, purple or gray 
  • Your child has a seizure for the first time, or a seizure lasting longer than 5 minutes 
  • Child won’t respond, or has passed out 
  • Injury to the neck or spine 
  • Severe head injury  
  • Severe burns, such as from a fire, or burns near the eyes, nose, mouth or groin 
  • Bleeding from a large or deep cut, a large cut to the head, chest or abdomen, or bleeding that will not stop after placing pressure for 10 minutes 
  • Severe allergic reaction, with swelling and trouble breathing 

When to call your doctor 

Your child’s doctor can help with more than you might realize. If it’s not an emergency, see your pediatrician. Call your child’s doctor for: 

  • A fever lasting more than three days 
  • A fever of 105 F or higher 
  • A fever over 102 for more than two days in an infant—without a clear reason for the fever  
  • COVID-19 symptoms—including fever, runny nose and dry cough  
  • A seizure lasting less than two or three minutes (If it lasts longer, call 911) 
  • Injury such as sprains, strains or swelling 
  • Minor cuts that need stitches  
  • Strains and sprains 
  • Minor burns that need treatment 
  • Diarrhea, nausea or vomiting  
  • Bladder infections 
  • Coughs, colds and sore throats  
  • Sinus pain and earaches 
  • Skin problems and rashes 

When to go to urgent care 

“Urgent care is a good option when your doctor’s office is closed or not available,” Dr. Tolcher says. But before you head out the door to an urgent care clinic, call your doctor. “Many times, we can give parents some simple advice and tide them over until the next day,” he adds.