Is it an emergency?

By Selena Hariharan, MD

Call the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222 at once if your child has swallowed a suspected poison or another person's medication.

A boy who has fallen off his bike.

When children suddenly become sick or hurt, we sometimes rush them to the emergency room, thinking immediate attention is necessary. But before you make the trip to the ER, remember this: In emergency rooms, the sickest patients are seen first. Order of arrival does not matter. A child who comes in after your child with a more serious problem will see the doctor before you do. That child may not look sicker to you, but the triage nurse takes all factors of an illness into account to determine which children need to be seen right away.

If your child doesn’t require the immediate attention of a physician, you could end up waiting for hours to see a doctor. However, if your child’s condition changes during the wait, be sure to notify the nurse.

So, what is an emergency? An emergency is when you believe a severe injury or illness is threatening your child’s health or may cause permanent harm.

If you think your child’s life is in danger, call 911. If you think your child is ill but it is not an emergency, call your pediatrician. It is rare for children to become seriously ill with no warning. Early attention to symptoms can prevent an illness or injury from turning into an emergency.

Some signs of a medical emergency:

  • trouble breathing, shortness of breath, or bloody sputum
  • blue or purple color to lips, skin or nail beds
  • sudden dizziness, weakness or change in vision
  • seizures (jerking and loss of consciousness)
  • animal, snake or human bites
  • severe pain or loss of motion or sensation anywhere in the body
  • severe bleeding or bleeding that does not stop after 5 minutes of direct pressure
  • severe burns or burns to the face, hands or groin
  • broken bones
  • puncture wounds
  • spinal cord or eye injuries
  • an allergic reaction including hives; swelling of the face, lips, eyes or tongue; fainting, wheezing or trouble breathing or swallowing
  • neck stiffness or rash with fever
  • a cut that is large, deep or involves the head, chest or abdomen
  • any head injury involving loss of consciousness, confusion, headache or vomiting
  • fever in a child less than 2 months of age

Dr. Hariharan is a pediatric emergency medicine specialist with Children’s Specialty Group PLLC at CHKD.