It's a common scenario for many parents of young children: it's a Saturday afternoon when your toddler develops a fever and cough. The pediatrician's office is closed for the weekend and you're unsure how you should handle the situation. Is your toddler's illness ER-worthy? Would a visit to the local urgent care make more sense? Or, should you forego medical care for the weekend and visit your child's regular pediatrician on Monday? While some illnesses and injuries clearly require an emergency room visit, others are not so black and white. This results in many children ending up in the ER unnecessarily, or less commonly, children who belong in the ER sitting in an urgent care waiting room.
So, how do you make the right choice for your child's well-being? Here are some tips on how to choose between a visit to the urgent care versus a trip to the ER.
When your child's pediatrician isn't available, consider urgent care if:
- You suspect the flu. If your child has a fever and cold symptoms and you think the flu is a possibility, urgent care is a good option.
- Possible ear infections. If your child is experiencing ear pain or drainage from the ears, she might have an ear infection. Additionally, if you notice excessive pulling on the ears, an urgent care trip is often warranted.
- Suspected pink eye. Infectious conjunctivitis is not only uncomfortable-- it's highly contagious. If your child is experiencing eye redness, swelling, and possibly discharge from the eye, visit the urgent care.
- Painful, sore throat. If your child is complaining of a sore throat and you notice accompanying white patches in his mouth, an urgent care trip is probably a good idea. Even without white patches on his throat, your child might have a strep infection.
Therese Canares, M.D., an emergency room physician at Johns Hopkins Children's Center, offers this helpful tip to parents: "As a rule, if your child is able to walk, talk, interact and play, chances are whatever she or he has is not an emergency."
Alternatively, parents should head straight to the ER if:
- Your infant has a fever-- and is less than 2 months old. In older kids, fevers are often no big deal. In infants younger than 2 months old, they are always considered ER-worthy.
- Your child has a head injury. If your child injures his head-- and especially if he loses consciousness-- head straight to the ER.
- Your child has a seizure. Don't hesitate in this situation: if your child has a seizure, the ER is your safest choice.
- You suspect broken bones. While some urgent care facilities can handle small fractures, broken bones are best treated at the ER.
- Your child's breathing is impaired. Whether your child is gasping for air or breathing rapidly, any type of breathing impairment is always an emergency.
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