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When Should You Take Your Child to Their Pediatrician, Urgent Care, or the Emergency Room?

From the moment your child is born, they are exposed to new experiences. They take in so much every day: sounds, foods, experiences — and, unfortunately, germs.

Germs are everywhere in this world, and no matter how much you try to protect your child, exposure to germs is inevitable. And that means that at some point or another, your child is going to get sick.

Where Should I Go When My Child Is Sick?

When your child needs medical care, there are three places they can go: their pediatrician, an urgent care center, or the emergency room.

If you’re having trouble deciding, you can always call your child’s pediatrician. The provider — or the provider on call — can help you decide the best place to get care for your child.

When to Take Your Child to their Pediatrician

Your child’s pediatrician is the person to see when there isn’t a medical emergency and your child doesn’t need care right away.

Bring your child to their pediatrician’s office for conditions such as:

  • Colds and coughs that don’t get better in several days
  • Allergies
  • Earaches
  • Gastrointestinal illnesses, such as vomiting and diarrhea
  • Severe sore throat and other signs of strep throat, such as fever and red, swollen tonsils
  • Minor burns or wounds
  • Painful urination, which can be a sign of a urinary tract infection
  • Rashes and mild skin infections

When you call your child’s provider, they may not be able to answer questions until you come in for an appointment. When you call, be ready to provide certain important information about your child:

    5 Pieces of Information to Have Ready When Asking Where to Bring Your Child

  1. Symptoms, including their temperature
  2. Current medications, including over-the-counter medications, prescription medications, vitamins, and supplements
  3. Medical history, including immunization records and past medical issues, such as asthma or seizures
  4. Your preferred pharmacy location
  5. Your child’s insurance information

Be prepared to write down instructions or be available for a callback, if necessary.

When to Take Your Child to Urgent Care

The best place for your child to receive medical care is with their pediatrician because they know your child’s medical history. But sometimes, your child will run a fever at night or they’ll get their first ear infection on a Saturday morning. These things happen, and urgent care is a good option if your child’s provider’s office is not open or if you can’t get an appointment right away.

Urgent care centers handle medical issues that may not require a visit to the emergency room but still need to be attended to quickly, such as:

  • Severe sore throat
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Vomiting and diarrhea that lasts for more than a few hours
  • Rash, especially with a fever
  • Severe ear pain, especially with a fever, vomiting, diarrhea, or drainage from the ear
  • Sharp or persistent pains in their stomach or abdomen
  • Blood in their urine or stool

Ask the urgent care office to send the records of your child’s visit to their pediatrician’s office or provide you with copies to share with them as soon as possible.

When to Take Your Child to the Emergency Room

The emergency department can help if your child has a severe illness or injury that needs immediate, advanced care. Common signs that your child needs emergency care include:

  • Seizures
  • Severe or increasing pain
  • Purple or blue skin, lips, or fingernails
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Sudden and sharp stomach or abdominal pain
  • Severe spinal cord or head injuries
  • Signs of a severe allergic reaction, such as hives, swelling, or difficulty breathing
  • Uncontrolled bleeding or vomiting
  • Eye injuries — such as scratches — if you can’t get to an ophthalmologist (eye physician) right away
  • Strange, unusually withdrawn, or less alert behavior
  • Unconsciousness, or lack of response when you talk to them
  • Neck stiffness with fever

A newborn’s (ages birth to 3 months) immune system is much more fragile than an older child’s immune system. For newborns, you should seek medical attention anytime something unexpected or different concerns you, such as:

  • A fever of 100.4 F or higher
  • Symptoms of dehydration, such as sunken eyes or less than 6 wet diapers in a day
  • A fontanelle — a soft spot on the skull that bulges out — even when your child is calm and in an upright position — especially if it occurs with fever or extreme tiredness
  • Difficulty waking them up
  • Rapid or labored breathing
  • Frequent forceful vomiting or inability to keep fluids down
  • Bloody vomit or stool
  • Diarrhea accompanied by a fever

At-Home Care For Your Child

After your child has been diagnosed by a medical professional, you’ll want to make them as comfortable as possible. There are ways to ease symptoms of some of the most common illnesses, such as strep throat or the flu, and provide comfort while they are recovering at home.

Note: Do not give young children — especially newborns — any over-the-counter medications without first consulting with their pediatrician.

Ways to ease symptoms include:

  • For a fever, taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen (a child should never take aspirin) and drinking plenty of fluids
  • For a sore throat, gargling with salt water, eating popsicles, and drinking fluids
  • For a common cold, drinking fluids, getting plenty of rest, and taking acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin). Children under 6 years old should never take over-the-counter cold or cough medication unless recommended by their health care provider.

Tips to make your child more comfortable include:

  • Keeping their room cool
  • Using a fan to keep cool air moving
  • Dressing them in lightweight clothing
  • Using a sponge or washcloth to apply warm (85 to 90°F) water to their body

When In Doubt, Get Help

You should never hesitate to ask a medical professional about the wellbeing of your child — no matter how small you might think your concern is. Unless it’s a medical emergency, your child’s pediatrician’s office is a great first resource to ask questions and get advice.

If you believe your child’s health is in jeopardy in any way, get them the medical assistance they need right away. You know your child. Trust your instincts and make the best decisions you can.

And remember — you are not alone. There are many medical professionals whose priority it is to help you keep your child safe, healthy, and happy.

Why Choose Stormont Vail

Located in Topeka, Kansas, Stormont Vail Health is a community-driven organization. It offers close to home care and with limited travel requirements, it will be easier for you to get the care your child needs from experienced pediatric providers you can trust at Cotton O’Neil Pediatrics.

Cotton O’Neil Express Care Clinics provide care for your children when their pediatrician isn’t immediately available, including X-rays, lab tests, and even sports physicals. With no required appointment, your child can get immediate care for anything from a burn to a sprain to severe flu symptoms.

In the event of a life-threatening medical emergency, Stormont’s Emergency & Trauma Center has specialized emergency treatments and services, including a trauma response team for critically injured children, a code blue team to care for children with a cardiac or respiratory emergency, and a neonatal intensive care team to care for sick newborns.

The Emergency & Trauma Center is a verified Level II Trauma Center, which means a wide variety of experienced medical professionals from neurosurgeons to radiologists can care for all types of children’s injuries and illnesses.

In 2018, Stormont Vail achieved Magnet designation for a third time. Magnet designation is one of the highest awards in nursing excellence and high-quality patient care. Only 9% of US hospitals have earned this recognition. The Joint Commission — with more than 50 years of accrediting hospitals in high quality standards — has also accredited Stormont Vail Hospital.

With a care team that includes pediatricians, behavioral health specialists, nurses, and other specialists, Cotton O’Neil Pediatrics has an experienced and skilled medical team to help your child.


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