When and Where to Get Medical Care

Sometimes you'll know instantly if your child needs quick medical care. Other times, it's hard to know if an injury or illness needs the attention of a health care provider — and, if it does, whether that means a trip to the ER, a call to your doctor, or a visit to the nearest urgent care center. These guidelines can help.

When to Call 911

For a serious emergency, call 911. Some situations are so serious that you need the help of trained medical personnel on the way to the hospital.

Call 911 if your child:

  • isn't breathing or is turning blue
  • is unconscious after a fall
  • is having a seizure
  • has a serious allergic reaction
  • has a broken bone that sticks out through the skin
  • took an unknown amount of medicine and is now hard to rouse
  • is choking
  • has a large cut that's bleeding uncontrollably

When to Go to the Emergency Department

An ER (emergency room) — also called an emergency department (ED) — can handle a wide variety of serious problems. They are equipped to handle life-threatening illnesses and injuries at any time of the day or night.

Go to the ER if your child has:

  • trouble breathing
  • unusual sleepiness or confusion
  • a stiff neck and a fever
  • a continuous fast heartbeat
  • ingested a poison, drug, or unknown substance
  • a head injury and is vomiting
  • an eye injury
  • a serious burn

When to Call Your Health Care Provider

For less urgent problems, call your child's primary care provider. Your provider — or a nurse who works in the office — can help you decide what steps to take and how.

Call for problems such as:

Calling your child's regular provider for these kinds of concerns allows for a continuity of care (always seeing a provider who knows you and your child).

But sometimes it's not practical to get to your provider's office or it's after hours and the office is not open. That's when you might think about getting medical care at an urgent care center or through telemedicine. (It's a good idea to talk with your child's health care provider about these options before you need to use them.)

What Can Be Treated at an Urgent Care Center?

Urgent care centers can evaluate and treat the same problems as your regular health care provider. These centers also can provide services like X-rays, stitches, and splints.

Other problems they can treat include:

What About Telemedicine?

Another way a child can be seen for many minor injuries and illnesses is through a "visit" to a health provider using your phone or computer. This is called telemedicine or telehealth. Through an app on your phone, you can talk to a provider face-to-face — and the provider can see you and your child. Your regular health care provider or health system may provide telemedicine services.

Whether your child is treated at an urgent care center or through a telemedicine visit, it's a good idea to follow up with your primary care provider after the visit. By doing this you can be sure your provider has the most up-to-date information about your child and can continue any needed follow-up care.

Reviewed by: Kate M. Cronan, MD
Date reviewed: November 18, 2017