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How can I tell if I need to take my child to the emergency room?

Dr. Alfred D. Sacchetti, MD
Emergency Medicine Specialist

Take your child to the emergency room or call 911 if your child has:

  • difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • a change in mental status, such as suddenly becoming unusually sleepy, difficult to wake, disoriented or confused
  • a headache accompanied by confusion, blurred vision or trouble walking
  • a headache combined with fever, vomiting, confusion, rash or stiff neck—this could be a sign of a serious illness like meningitis
  • loss of consciousness
  • a deep cut that will not stop bleeding
  • a broken bone protruding through the skin
  • moderate-to-severe burns
  • a rapid heartbeat that does not slow down
  • accidentally ingested a poisonous substance or too much medication
  • serious head, neck or back injury
  • a body part near an injured bone that is numb, tingling, weak, cold or pale
  • severe abdominal pain
  • a non-blanching rash—small red or purple spots on the skin that don't change color when you press on them—particularly when accompanied by a fever
  • hives which appear with lip or facial swelling, and may cause trouble breathing
  • a seizure lasting more than three minutes

Trinity Health recognizes that people seek medical information on a variety of topics for a variety of reasons. Trinity Health does not condone or support all practices covered in this site. As a Catholic health care organization, Trinity Health acts in accordance with the Catholic tradition.

Please note, the information contained on this website is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of a qualified health care provider if you have questions regarding your medical condition or before starting any new treatment. In the event of a medical emergency always call 911 or proceed to your nearest emergency care facility.

You should take your child to the emergency room (ER) in the following situations:

  • You know your child best, so don’t take any chances when their fever has been higher than 104 degrees Fahrenheit for a fairly long period of time. 
  • If your child has a seizure, this likely will be a sign of a serious yet treatable condition, but will definitely need a screening and diagnosis by a physician. 
  • Any severe pain in the abdominal area, or any moderate to severe injury to the head, neck or limbs will likely require X-rays. 
  • A respiratory illness which lasts for more than 10 days or extreme shortness of breath, like with asthma, should never be treated lightly, but should be treated by a doctor.

There are many reasons to take your child to the emergency room (ER). You should take your child to the ER if there is any change in your child’s breathing, if you see your child’s nares (nostrils) flare when trying to breathe or if they are belly breathing. Infants with fevers greater than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit should be seen in the ER and have a workup. If your child is lethargic, not eating or you see a decrease in the amount of wet diapers (sign of dehydration) you should come to the ER immediately. When parents ask if they should have come or not, I tell them that when something makes them uncomfortable or if they see a change in your child, they can call their doctor. If he or she is unavailable, the ER staff is always there.

You know your child the best so when you have a sense that something is not right it is time to see a healthcare professional at the emergency room (ER). The emergency department provides pediatric specialized doctors 24/7 to care for your child’s needs.

In general, a family should contact the pediatrician and discuss symptoms that may be concerning to them. The pediatrician can help guide the family’s decision about whether or not an ER visit is necessary. Some common reasons that children are evaluated in an emergency setting include difficulties breathing, accidents and injuries, and babies under two months of age that have a fever (a temperature greater than 100.4 Fahrenheit).

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.