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Kids and emergencies: When to call 911

A smiling mom holds up her baby.

Jan. 13, 2020—When kids are sick or hurt, a bandage and a hug isn't always enough to make them better. An ill or injured child may need emergency care.

You may recognize the severity of the situation right away—like if a child is choking or isn't breathing—but other emergencies are less obvious. Symptoms that would otherwise seem less serious in an adult may actually be an emergency when it occurs in a child.

Signs of a child emergency

If you know it's not an emergency, you can call your child's doctor for advice or visit urgent care.

But sometimes a call to 911 is best. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Academy of Family Physicians, there are some common signs and symptoms that necessitate dialing 911. They are:

  • Unusual behavior after a head injury, such as confusion or decreased alertness.
  • A head injury followed by a bad headache or vomiting.
  • Bleeding that doesn't stop after five minutes.
  • Severe trouble breathing or having bluish or gray skin.
  • Vomiting up blood.
  • Pain—in any part of the body—that is severe, persistent or gets worse.
  • Severe burns.
  • Signs of severe dehydration, such as sunken eyes, crying without tears, no wet diapers or urination, or sluggishness.
  • A purple or red rash that suddenly spreads.
  • Possible poisoning (call the Poison Control hotline first: 800.222.1222).

Of course, other signs and symptoms may also warrant a 911 call. Trust your gut as a parent or caregiver: If you think a situation or illness may require immediate medical treatment, don't hesitate to call 911.

Know your location If you ever have to call 911, always be prepared to tell the operator exactly where you are. That's especially important if you're calling from a cellphone. Because of the way cell towers work, the operator may not be able to pinpoint the precise location of your call.

When leaving your child with a babysitter, be sure to place your home's address in a visible location and point it out to them before you leave.

Learn more

The AAP recommends that parents and caregivers take a first aid class and learn CPR. That way you can be prepared to help a child until emergency services arrive. You can ask about these classes at the hospital, or contact the American Red Cross or the American Heart Association.

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