When to Go to the Emergency Room or Call an Ambulance: 15 Situations Requiring Immediate Action

Children get sick a lot. It might seem like every second week your little one is coming home from daycare with a runny nose or slight cough. When a rash, harsh cough or fever is involved, then it can start to get a little scary. Add in bouts of nausea or diarrhea and you might be thinking it’s time for a trip to your local emergency department.

When to go to the emergency room is a common question parents will ask themselves. I’ve spent several evenings in the ER with my children over the years – for gastro, for sports injuries, for breathing difficulties, for bad tummy pain, for high fevers. It’s scary but sometimes the best place for our kids is at the ED.

How do you know when to go to the emergency room or when contacting your regular GP will do? Here is a brief guide on when to take action:

Dial Triple Zero (000) for an Ambulance if:

1. The child is experiencing severe drowsiness or is unresponsive.

While it is normal for your tot to be sleepy, especially as a newborn after a feed or a bath, it should be of some concern if your little one is sleeping more than usual.

If you can’t wake Bub up or they are too floppy, you need to seek help immediately.

An unresponsive child can be a sign of serious illness or an aggravated health condition, such as hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar) or meningitis (brain infection).

When to go to the emergency room
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2. The child is having difficulty breathing or is experiencing unusual breathing.

Babies wheeze from time to time; it is considered normal.

However, if your little one seems to be fighting to get air into their lungs, you hear a persistent cough or wheeze, you notice that the muscles between their ribs pull in when they breathe, or there’s tugging in the skin at the base of the neck, then you need to seek medical help immediately.

Additionally, your child may not be able to talk or make sounds and may take shallow breaths. In some severe instances, your tot may seem overly tired and be pale or blue.

All, or a combination, of the above, can be signs of serious illness, such as pneumonia (chest infection) or a severe case of asthma. Do not dismiss any of these symptoms.

3. Baby has cold hands or feet or has pale, blue, or blotchy skin.

Poor blood circulation or low oxygen levels in the body can cause your little one’s skin colour and appearance to change.

If you witness a change in their skin colour and appearance, it could be due to a serious illness, such as a bacterial infection or pneumonia.

4. Your tot experiences seizures (fit).

While seizures at a young age can be disconcerting and may cause you distress, they are actually quite normal and usually not serious.

However, if this is your tot’s first seizure, you witness their eyes roll backwards, they are unresponsive, their limbs shake violently for a short time, or exhibit shallow or unusual breathing, you should reach out for an ambulance.

Now and then, a seizure can be a sign of a serious brain infection; therefore, it is advised to err on the side of safety.

5. You notice a rash on Bub that doesn’t go away.

As a newborn, your little one’s sensitive skin tends to react easily to many things.

However, if you notice a purple or red rash or skin spots or blotches that don’t fade away when pressed, then this may be an early sign of a life-threatening illness, such as meningitis.

When in doubt, you can also conduct the glass test, which is basically pressing a glass firmly against your tot’s skin. If the rash doesn’t fade when pressed, then you should reach out for medical assistance immediately.

Illnesses: When to go to the Emergency Room

1. Your tot is irritable or is crying incessantly.

Of course, all little ones cry, but if they are continually irritable, their crying is high-pitched, weak, or unusual sounding, then there may be a problem.

Additionally, if they are constantly crying and are difficult to calm down, you may want to visit your nearest hospital emergency department.

2. Bub wees less than normal. 

You know your tot better than anyone. If you notice fewer than usual wet nappies, typically less than half of the usual number a day, then there might be a problem.

Your child may be dehydrated or may have an infection that needs to be addressed right away.

3. Your tot has no appetite or is vomiting repeatedly.

If your little one is not feeding well or is showing no interest in food, it may be an early sign of illness.

While many newborns regurgitate their milk after feeding, if you witness blood or green fluid in their vomit, pain as they vomit, or if they cannot eat or drink and are still vomiting after 12 hours if they are under 5 years of age, then you should be concerned.

Excessive vomiting can be a sign of illness, infection, or blockage and can cause dehydration, which can lead to other issues.

4. Your tot has a fever of 40°C or higher or your newborn has a fever over 38°C. 

Remember, you know your child best.  As always, exercise your mother’s intuition or “mum-gut”. If something is niggling you that it’s not right, you should contact your doctor or visit your local hospital as soon as possible.

when to go to the emergency room with your child
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5. Your child is experiencing chest pain, tightness in the chest or breathing difficulties. 

Any breathing issues should be considered an emergency. Another emergency situation is if your child experiences a sudden onset of weakness, numbness or paralysis of the face, arm or leg.

Accidents and injuries: When to go to the emergency room (or ring 000) 

  1. You suspect your child has broken a bone 
  2. Your child is experiencing uncontrollable bleeding 
  3. Your child has hit their head 
  4. Your child has a sudden collapse or unexplained fall 
  5. Your child has burned themselves or been bitten by a snake 

For more advice visit Health Direct. 

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Gloria Ruby Ramirez is a writer, mother, and lover of coffee, twinkle lights, and rain who believes in the magical power of words. She is passionate about parenting, mental health, and the environment. She is a former agricultural microbiologist/plant pathologist with a Bachelor of Science in Microbiology from Arizona State University. Born in the desert of northern Mexico, she is mum to her beautifully energetic son and Shih Tzu, Gerty. When not writing, Gloria can be found spending time with her son and family, reading, or embroidering.

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