To go or not to go? When to take kids to the ER

Posted at 2:13 PM, Aug 05, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-05 14:13:45-04

It's scary when your children are sick. Parents often second guess themselves when deciding if kids need emergency medical care. You don’t want to be a hypochondriac, and you don’t want to be negligent. How do you know when to wait it out or when to take your child to the emergency room?

Don't ignore these symptoms

A common phrase in the medical community says, "If you hear hooves, think horses, not zebras," meaning common things are, well, common — and probably not cause for alarm. If you're dealing with sniffles or a mild fever, you can likely treat that at home, but sometimes you need immediate help.

  • High or persistent fever: WebMD says, "A high temperature can be alarming, but in an otherwise healthy child it usually isn't something serious. A fever often means the body is working the way it should and is fighting off infection." For infants up to 3 months, the number to watch is 100.4 degrees, for babies 3-6 months it's 101, and for children older than 6 months it's 103.
  • Trouble breathing: Symptoms include wheezing, grunting, nose flaring and sweating. Take immediate action if your child is turning blue or grayish. It could be undiagnosed asthma, croup or pneumonia.
  • Widespread rash or hives: According to the Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America, nearly 1 in 50 Americans are at risk of anaphylaxis — a severe allergic reaction. Common allergies are certain foods (like peanuts, wheat, eggs and milk), insect stings, latex and medications. Unfortunately, the severity of reactions can change between exposures. So even after you know your child has a reaction, you can never be sure how severe his or her reaction will be.
  • Severe dehydration: If your child has diarrhea and/or vomiting — especially if he or she can't keep water down — it doesn't take long to become severely dehydrated. According to, dehydration symptoms include crying without tears, not wetting a diaper for 12 hours, having a dry mouth with no saliva or appearing pale.
  • Seizures: According to the Epilepsy Foundation, 200,000 children are diagnosed with epilepsy each year. Many seizures can be managed at home, once you know what you're dealing with. The first time your child seizes or if he or she is injured in a seizure, seek immediate medical care.
  • A stiff neck accompanied by fever, light sensitivity and headache: The dangerous variety of meningitis falls well within the "zebra" category because it is uncommon, but it looks like other types of illnesses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says only a doctor can determine if you have meningitis, what type it is and the best treatment ..."which can sometimes be lifesaving."



Trust your instincts

No list is going to tell you every possible reason to seek medical care. An article in Consumer Reports says to "trust your instincts." If you feel uneasy, get it checked out. It's possible you will end up at the ER for a nonemergency, but that's better than staying home when your child is seriously ill. To be safe, bandages, medication and peace of mind are all available at a pediatric ER near you.