Even healthy kids get hurt or sick sometimes. In some cases, you will know that you need to head straight to the emergency room (ER) at the nearest hospital. In other cases, it's harder to determine whether an injury or illness needs the attention of a medical professional or can be treated at home.
Different problems require different levels of care. When your child needs some sort of medical help, you have many options:
As a parent, it can be hard to make these judgment calls. You don't want to rush to the ER if it isn't really an emergency and can wait until a doctor's appointment. On the other hand, you don't want to hesitate to get medical attention if your child needs treatment right away. As your kids grow, you'll learn to trust yourself to decide when it's an emergency.
Remember that in cases when you know the problem is minor, it's best to contact your child's doctor, go to an urgent care center, or handle it at home. ERs can be crowded and it can take a long time for minor problems to be treated.
Here are some reasons to go to the ER :
Other situations may seem alarming, but don't require a trip to the ER. The list below includes some of the symptoms that may require calling your doctor:
When in doubt, call your doctor. Even if the doctor isn't available, the office nurse can talk with you and determine whether you should go to the ER. On weekends and at night, doctors have answering services that allow them to get in touch with you if you leave a message.
Sometimes an injury or an illness isn't life threatening but needs medical attention on the same day. If that's the case, and your doctor doesn't have office hours at the time, consider going to an urgent care center.
Urgent care centers usually allow you to walk in without an appointment, just as you would in an ER. But they're equipped and staffed to treat minor, non-critical issues. Patients usually will be seen by a doctor and also might be able to get X-rays or blood drawn.
Most of these clinics offer extended hours on evenings and on weekends for patients to receive treatment when the family doctor is not available. Some are open 24 hours a day every day. In addition to accepting walk-in patients, some allow you to call ahead to be seen.
Some cases where you might take your child to an urgent care center include:
The doctors who work at freestanding urgent care centers often are ER doctors or family physicians who focus on treating adult and pediatric diseases. Some centers are also staffed by nurse practitioners and physician assistants. The ERs in many children's hospitals have special sections similar to an urgent care center for treatment of minor injuries and illnesses.
Find out about the urgent care centers near you — before a situation comes up where you need to go to one. Ask your doctor about local facilities. In general, you should find a clinic that meets the state licensing requirements and is staffed by doctors who are board certified in their specialties, such as pediatrics, family medicine, or emergency medicine. It's also a good idea to find out if the center accepts your insurance plan.
Talk with your doctor before your child gets sick about how to handle emergencies and ask about the doctor's policy on addressing medical needs outside of office hours. Having that information ahead of time will mean one less thing to worry about when your child is sick!
Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: April 2013
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