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When to Seek Emergency Medical Care for Your Child

When should you seek emergency or urgent treatment for a child?

Always call 911 if your child has a life-threatening illness or injury or at any time you think a condition may cause permanent harm.  If you are unsure, call your child’s healthcare provider for guidance.  The American Academy of Pediatrics has a webpage about When to Call Emergency Medical Services (EMS).

In general, most life-threatening conditions will fall under one or more of the following ABCDEs:

  • A for Airway
    • Is there a foreign object or medical condition blocking the airway? Is the breathing noisy?  Is there drooling?
  • B for Breathing
    • Is breathing rapid? Does it look like hard work with nostrils flaring, raising the shoulders, leaning forward to support the upper body?  Is there bluish discoloration around the mouth?
  • C for Circulation
    • Is there a lot of bleeding? Does the skin feel hot or cold?  Is the skin an abnormal color? 
  • D for Disability
    • Has there been a change in alertness, behavior, vision, or consciousness?
  • E for Exposure
    • It may not be obvious what is wrong and you may have to remove clothing to look for injury or anything else out of the ordinary.

Be prepared.  Most (if not all) parents and guardians have to take their child to an urgent care or emergency department at least once.  If you prepare for this inevitability in advance, you will eliminate a lot of stress.

  • Take a CPR and First Aid Class
  • Remember to take a blanket, toy, book, or game and your child’s health history like shot records and medication list.
  • Have an emergency plan for childcare options for siblings so you will be able to focus your attention on supporting the sick or injured child.
  • Know how to access school forms on the school district website in case your child will need medications or activity restrictions before returning to school.

Be honest.  Some of the most stoic patients I have ever cared for were children.  Believe in them.  Rather than telling them it is not going to hurt and then expecting them to be able to cope with that falsehood, try telling them instead how brave they are. 


If for any reason your child goes to the hospital for illness or injury, hospital staff will usually ask if you need a note for school when you are discharged from the hospital. Please say yes, as it lets school staff know that your child has been medically cleared to return to school.  The note may also include instructions about activity restrictions that should be followed during the healing process.