6 Reasons Your Grandkid May Need the ER

Watch out for problems that need immediate medical attention.

Medically reviewed in February 2022

Babysitting your grandkids can be one of the most rewarding experiences of being a grandparent, but a fun trip can quickly take a turn if the little one gets hurt. Good thing this isn't your first rodeo! Bumps, bruises, fevers, a choking fit or two—you've seen it all. Or have you?

These days, kids can get into a number of new hazards. In 2013, nearly one in five U.S. children went to an emergency room at least once. Some of those ER trips were likely for the obvious stuff. But here are 6 other health problems that you need to keep on your radar, too.

Breathing problem: You can probably spot a breathing problem, right? Their tummy is moving in and out with each breath, or their muscles and skin between the ribs are sucking in. But watch out for this, too: If your grandchild is having coughing fits or making a high-pitched whooping sound, they may have whooping cough. This disease has made a major comeback in recent years, so be on the lookout. Also, a swollen tongue, throat or lip -- along with trouble breathing -- could mean they're having an allergic reaction to food or insects, even if they've never had one before. 

Tummy aches: While you might be tempted to just chalk it up to food sensitivity, stomach pains can point to several potential sicknesses. Call the doctor if your grandchild complains about their tummy and also has a fever, vomiting, diarrhea or lack of appetite. Beeline for the ER if there are signs of drowsiness, a bloated or tender belly, bloody stool, or inability to walk.

Rashes: A harmless rash, say from laundry detergent, will normally clear up on its own in a few days. You should start to worry if it doesn't, or if your grandchild also has a headache, joint pain, blistering, bleeding, trouble breathing or a fever. Watch out for red, bumpy blotches on the face and behind the ears that come with a fever—which could be measles. A 2015 measles outbreak that began at Disneyland lasted four months and infected 147 people in several states.

Neck pain: A stiff neck with a high fever could mean your grandchild has meningitis, a sometimes deadly infection that affects the brain and spinal cord. The symptoms can vary, depending on your grandchild's age, but take them to the ER if there are signs of sensitivity to light, extreme irritability, drowsiness, severe headache, vomiting or difficulty eating. If neck stiffness appears a month or so after a tick bite and comes with flu-like symptoms and a rash, it could be a sign of Lyme disease.

Ingestion: It can be hard to remember just how curious little ones are when you're not constantly around them. They can find a way to get into bottles of bleach, cleaners or medicine (like from your bag or purse). Call poison control (800-222-1222) and tell them what was swallowed. They'll be able to tell you if the ER is necessary.

Head injuries: It's probably time to call 911 if your grandchild is dizzy, sleepy, disoriented or vomiting after any head injury. Tests or CT scans may be needed.

When in doubt, it's better to be safe than sorry. Talk to the kid's parents beforehand and find out what they'd like you to do in the case of a medical emergency. Have the pediatrician's phone number handy, map out the nearest preferred ER, and fill out a consent form with the parents that says you can make medical decisions for the child.

To prevent mishaps during your next weekend together, be sure to put child locks on lower cabinets and place pills out of reach. And always stay up to date on the latest safety information for kids.

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