Children's, Health and Safety

When to Visit the Emergency Department

Your child doesn’t feel well, but should you take them to the emergency department? Sometimes it can be hard to tell when a child requires urgent medical treatment or if the concern can wait.

Dr. Sam Strachan is a pediatric emergency fellow.  He says the emergency department at Children’s of Alabama alone receives approximately 80,000 visits each year.  That’s an average of 219 patients each day!

Dr. Strachan says the emergency department will never turn anyone away, but a child may be better served and have a shorter wait time by seeing their pediatrician instead.  “Every child should have a pediatrician,” he says.  “If a child isn’t feeling well, even in the middle of the night, you can always call your pediatrician’s on-call number for advice.”

You should always take your child to the emergency department in a true emergency.  These signs include:

Go to Emergency Department

  • serious injury
  • trouble breathing
  • not drinking enough, not urinating enough
  • unusual sleepiness or confusion
  • a head injury and is vomiting
  • an eye injury
  • a serious burn

Call 911 if your child

  • isn’t breathing or is turning blue
  • is unconscious after a fall
  • is having a seizure
  • has a serious allergic reaction
  • has broken a bone that sticks out through the skin
  • is choking
  • has a large cut that is bleeding uncontrollably

A high fever can be scary for a parent to see, however, Dr. Strachan says it’s the body’s natural defense mechanism against infection.  “A lot of parents are concerned with a fever of 104 or 105 in their child,” he says.  “However children can deal with high fevers better than adults can.”  Babies are the exception.  “Any baby under two months old should be seen right away for any fever greater than or equal to 100.4,” he says.

Dr. Strachan offers these tips to help decide if a child needs to go to the emergency department in the event of a fever:

  • If feverish, try Motrin or Tylenol, depending on the age of the child
  • If the child feels well between fever, wait to see pediatrician until the next day

If it’s not a true emergency, it’s always best to wait to see your child’s pediatrician. “On the front end you’re taking away resources from children who really need it,” Dr. Strachan says. There’s another benefit to seeing the pediatrician.

“They know your child, they know your child’s history,” Dr. Strachan says.

Through an established relationship with a pediatrician, a child can receive better long term care.

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