When Should I Take My Child to the Emergency Room?

child being examined in an emergency room

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Caring for a sick or injured child can be an overwhelming experience. Part of the stress often comes from being unsure whether your child’s symptoms warrant a visit to the emergency room. You don’t want to take a child to the ER without cause, but you also don’t want to overlook a true need for immediate medical care.

Here, we’ll get some advice from physicians who see kids in the emergency room every day. They’ll answer questions on what kind of symptoms necessitate immediate care, how to handle your child’s emergency while you are home, and what to expect when you arrive at the hospital.

Please note this article should not replace professional medical advice. When in doubt, reach out to your child's pediatrician or healthcare provider, and in an emergency, don’t hesitate to call 911.

How to Respond in a Medical Emergency

It’s definitely easier said than done, but the first thing to do when faced with a possible emergency is to take a deep breath. “It is important to try to stay calm during a medical emergency,” says Kavita Patel, MD, a pediatric emergency medicine specialist at NYU Langone. “Though it is scary when your child is experiencing a medical emergency, approaching the situation calmly will be the most helpful.”

If you know first aid or CPR, you can help your child right away with their symptoms. “Examples of first aid that parents can administer at home include CPR if needed, ensuring physical safety in the case of a seizure, holding pressure on areas of significant bleeding, or administering medication for pain or fever,” explains Dr. Patel.

Jonathan Miller, MD, the medical director of value-based care and chief of primary care at Nemours Children's Health, also encourages parents to call their child's pediatrician in many instances of suspected emergencies, especially when it comes to illness. “Most illnesses do not require a trip to the ER,” Dr. Miller explains. “In fact, the ER is often so busy because people go there for non-emergent issues that would be better handled elsewhere.”

However, Dr. Miller notes, there are certain instances where you should not wait for any reason to call 911 or go to the emergency room. These include if your child isn’t breathing or is turning blue, appears unconscious, is having a seizure for the first time, or is having a severe allergic reaction. A child who has a broken bone that sticks out through the skin, or a large cut that won’t stop bleeding should also definitely go to the ER. The same is true of a child who is choking and can’t stop, says Dr. Miller.

What to Expect When You Call 911

If your instincts tell you to dial 911, don't hesitate. It's important to try to remain as level-headed as possible while placing that call. “When calling 911, it is important for parents to remain calm and provide the 911 operator with a clear description of the problem so they can give you the best advice,” suggests Nestor Valeron, MD, a pediatric emergency medicine physician at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital.

Once you get an operator on the phone, they will ask you a series of questions, says Robert Lapus, MD, UTHealth Houston emergency medicine physician affiliated with Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital. You will likely need to share your location, as well as the number you are calling from. “While many call centers are able to see your location and number, they may ask to confirm it,” he explains. “If you get disconnected, they will know where to send the emergency crew along with how best to reach you.”

The call operator will also ask you questions about your child’s emergency and current state. Try to speak as clearly as possible so you are understood, Dr. Lapus recommends. “Let the operator guide the conversation; they may be typing the information you are providing,” he describes. If they offer you instructions for helping your child, follow them. Then, stay on the line until the operator says it’s okay to hang up, Dr. Lapus advises.

Symptoms of Illness That Warrant a Trip to the ER

Kids get sick often, and their symptoms can be worrying. Most illnesses do not warrant urgent medical care—but some might. So how do you know that your child’s illness requires emergency care? “As a general rule, if you perceive that your child is in distress (poor color, rapid breathing, ill appearance, decreased level of activity) a visit to the ER is advised,” says Dr. Valeron.


Kids get fevers frequently, and fever in and of itself isn’t necessarily a reason to go to the emergency room, Dr. Valeron explains. If your child appears well, and there are no other concerning symptoms such as trouble breathing, rashes, pain, or persistent vomiting, you can likely just call their pediatrician for advice, he says.

However, this is not always the case when it comes to infants. Fevers in young infants are considered medical emergencies, Dr. Lapus warns. A temperature of 100.4 or higher in any infant less than 4 weeks is an emergency, he describes. Additionally, a temperature of 100.4 or higher in a baby 4-8 weeks who is acting sick, very sleepy, has a decreased appetite, or is very fussy, necessitates emergency care.

Other Concerning Symptoms

Additional reasons you may need to take a child to the emergency room include any time they have difficulty breathing or are short of breath. The same is true if your child is having a seizure, is reporting a sudden change or loss of vision, is vomiting continuously, or has severe abdominal pain, says Dr. Lapus. If an asthmatic child needs their inhaler more than every three to four hours, you should take them to the ER as well, he adds.

Injuries That Warrant a Trip to the ER

When your child gets hurt, and especially if they seem in pain or are bleeding, it’s understandable that your first thought is to go to the emergency room. However, most simple cuts and bruises do not necessarily need emergency care. “Wounds that are simple can often be handled in an urgent care center,” says Dr. Valeron. “But if it is a large or complex wound, they are best managed in an emergency department.”

Traumatic Injuries

Any traumatic injury involving the head should be seen in the emergency room, Dr. Valeron says. This is especially true if these injuries are accompanied by symptoms like loss of consciousness, dips in alertness, vomiting, trouble walking, or speech changes, he explains.

Additionally, Dr. Valeron says, traumatic injuries involving the neck, abdomen, back, or chest, along with injuries that include pain, open wounds, vomiting, blood in urine, shortness of breath, or a child who seems very ill, all necessitate emergency care.

Broken Bones and Other Injuries

Dr. Patel says there are a few other cases where an injury would require emergency care. These include any time you think your child may have a broken bone, has experienced any type of severe burn, or has a deep cut that won’t stop bleeding. It’s especially important that any musculoskeletal injury with extreme swelling, deformity, or changes in color or sensation, be examined by an ER doctor. You should also take your child to the emergency room if they appear to have a broken bone and can’t walk or use their arm, Dr. Valeron adds.

What to Expect When You Get to the ER

Once you arrive at the emergency room, you will likely be registered by an administrator, notes Dr. Patel. Then, your child's vital signs will be taken and their symptoms will be evaluated for severity. Next, a provider will speak with you and your child.

Usually, you can expect a wait between the time you arrive and when you're seen by an ER staff member. It's important to understand that there is a triage system in place in emergency rooms, which means that people with the most severe symptoms are seen first. This ensures people with the top priority emergencies receive immediate care.

Of course, this often frustrates parents who feel their kids should be prioritized, says Dr. Valeron. “My advice to those parents is to be understanding and patient. Your child eventually will be seen, but more severe emergencies need to be tended to first,” he offers. “That’s the kind of system you would want in place if your child was in a life-threatening condition.”

Once it is your turn, your child will typically be seen by a nurse as well as a physician, says Dr. Lapus. “At some hospitals, a junior doctor may examine or speak with your child prior to the supervising physician,” he explains. “While this might seem redundant, it’s a great safety check to make sure all the information is accurate.”

After your child is evaluated by the medical team, they will decide what tests, medications, or interventions are necessary, Dr. Laus explains. Sometimes your child may need to see a specialist. “In some cases, your child may need care at another location, and you may have to be transferred to a specialty hospital,” he adds.

Some children will have to stay for several hours or even overnight. But others are discharged within an hour or two. Either way, it’s important to make sure you follow any care instructions the emergency room staff gives you. The Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP) also recommends you follow up with your child's pediatrician any time your child goes to the emergency room.

A Word From Verywell

Managing a child who needs emergency medical care can be scary, but it's important to try and remain calm. Keep in mind you are not alone; almost all children visit the ER at one point or another, and most end up fine. It’s important to not hesitate to take your child to the emergency room when it’s warranted—it’s always better to be safe than sorry. When in doubt, don't hesitate to consult your child's pediatrician or healthcare provider, and in an immediate medical emergency, please be sure to dial 911.

If you want to prepare for any possible situations in the future, consider taking a CPR or first aid class. Additionally, talk to your child's pediatrician about how to plan for any future medical emergencies with your child.

7 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. National Library of Medicine. When to use the emergency room - child.

  3. American Academy of Pediatrics. What to Expect When You Call 911.

  4. American Academy of Pediatrics. When Your Child Needs Emergency Medical Services.

  5. Yale Medicine. Fevers in Infants Under 3 Months.

  6. National Library of Medicine. When to use the emergency room - child.

  7. Yancey CC, O'Rourke MC. Emergency Department Triage. In:StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing. 2022.

By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a lactation consultant and writer covering maternal/child health, parenting, general health and wellness, and mental health. She has worked with breastfeeding parents for over a decade, and is a mom to two boys.