Is It an Emergency or Just Urgent? - Nemours Blog


Is It an Emergency or Just Urgent?

Is It an Emergency or Just Urgent? by Kate Cronan, MD | Promise, Powered by Nemours Children's Health System

It’s a Saturday afternoon, and you’ve just watched your 8-year-old take a terrifying flip over the handlebars of his bicycle. Or, it’s dinner time on a Tuesday night, and your 2-year-old has put his peas into his nose — instead of his mouth — and now they’re stuck. Should you call your child’s regular doctor? Should you pack up and head to the Emergency Department, or seek out your nearest urgent care center? It can be a tough decision, and it doesn’t help when you’re tired, stressed, and concerned for your child’s health.

In some cases, you’ll know instantly if your child requires immediate medical attention. But in other cases, it might be hard to determine whether an injury or illness needs the attention of a medical professional or can be treated at home.

The first call can always be to your child’s primary care physician. Your doctor — or a nurse who works in the office — can help you decide what steps to take and how.

Call 911

Some situations are so serious that you need the help of trained medical personnel on the way to the hospital. There are a number of examples — too many to put in a list here. But, sticking to the basics, here are some of the most pressing issues that would require an immediate call to 911.

Call 911 if your child:

  • is not breathing or is turning blue
  • lost consciousness after a fall
  • is having a seizure
  • is having a serious allergic reaction
  • has a broken bone that’s sticking out through the skin
  • has ingested an unknown amount of medicine and is now hard to rouse
  • is choking
  • gets a large cut and there’s uncontrollable bleeding

Go to the Emergency Department

An emergency room (ER) — also called an emergency department (ED) — can handle a wide variety of serious problems. They’re fully equipped to handle life-threatening, very serious illnesses and injuries at any time of the day or night.

Go to the Emergency Department if your child has:

  • trouble breathing or shortness of breath
  • unusual sleepiness or confusion
  • a stiff neck and a fever
  • a continuous fast heartbeat
  • ingested poison, drug, or unknown substance
  • a head injury and is vomiting
  • an injury to the eye

Go to Urgent Care

An urgent care center can be a good option for less serious illnesses or injuries at night and on weekends, when your doctor may not be in the office. At these centers, you can usually get things like X-rays, stitches, and care for minor injuries that aren’t life-threatening yet require medical attention on the same day.

Consider urgent care for non-emergencies such as:

  • minor broken bones, cuts, or burns
  • vomiting or diarrhea
  • ear, nose, and throat pain or infection
  • splinter removal
  • infected wounds
  • mild allergic reactions or asthma flare-ups
  • sprains and other sports injuries
  • minor animal bites

Call Your Pediatrician

Then there’s the stuff that’s concerning for you and uncomfortable for your child, but can probably wait until the next day. It’s best to call your pediatrician or family doctor and schedule a next-day appointment for issues such as:

  • high fever
  • ear pain
  • sore throat
  • belly pain
  • headache that doesn’t go away
  • dehydration
  • rash
  • mild wheezing
  • persistent cough

Care for Your Child at Home

Many minor injuries and illnesses can be handled with home care and over-the-counter (OTC) treatments. But if you aren’t quite sure, ask your doctor about telemedicine. Through an app on your phone, you can now talk to a doctor face-to-face, on demand with an online video doctor visit. Telemedicine consultations do charge a fee, so be sure to read the fine print before registering. Some insurance companies do cover telemedicine visits. Typically, telemedicine consultations can help for the following symptoms:

  • cuts
  • fever
  • sore throat
  • rashes
  • cold or flu symptoms
  • scrapes and bruises
  • abdominal pain
  • ongoing behavioral issues

In all of these cases, you should always follow up with your primary care physician so they have the most up-to-date information about your child and can continue any needed follow-up care.

Knowing where to go — and when — can help save your family worry when your child is hurt or sick. And if it’s a more serious case, it may even save your child’s life.

Learn More

Going to the Emergency Room (Nemours’ KidsHealth)
Is it a Medical Emergency? (Nemours’ KidsHealth)

This post originally appeared in the The News Journal.

Kate Cronan, MD

Dr. Cronan is a pediatric emergency attending physician at Nemours Children's Hospital in Wilmington, Del., and a medical editor at Nemours Children’s Health Media.