When to Take Your Child to the Pediatrician, Immediate Care or ER

When a child is sick, especially in the late hours of the night, parents and caregivers must quickly make a choice: Where should they turn for medical care?  

Call Your Pediatrician

A great place to start is by calling your pediatrician or primary care provider. Many practices offer an after-hours “parent pager” that can help you decide whether your child’s symptoms warrant a trip to your pediatrician, an immediate care facility or the emergency room.

When the on-call provider returns your page, it is helpful if you can describe your concerns and how your child looks to you (Are they playful and active? Hard to wake up? Having difficulty breathing?), your child’s medical history and any medications they are taking. If your child is sick, you can take a temperature and provide that information. These pieces of information will help the on-call provider recommend one of the following options:

  • Watchful waiting and certain treatments at home
  • An appointment in the pediatric office the next day or in a few days
  • A visit to a pediatric urgent care clinic
  • A visit to the emergency room
  • Calling 911

How do you tell if you need Immediate Care vs. the Emergency room vs. 911?

Whether you take your child to an immediate care facility or a children's hospital emergency room, it’s important to select a location that focuses on pediatric care and will know what’s best for your child.

Visiting Immediate Care

With locations around the Chicago area, Lurie Children's Immediate Care services include same-day medical services for unexpected illnesses.

Our Immediate Care pediatricians provide urgent care for kids and treatment for non-emergencies or non-life-threatening illnesses and injuries, including:

  • Mild to moderate asthma attacks
  • Broken bones, strains and sprains, minor cuts and bruises
  • Colds, coughs, sore throats, earaches, pink eye, rashes
  • Vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain and dehydration
  • Fever in children over two months old
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Sick symptoms that warrant COVID-19, RSV and/or rapid flu testing

Virtual Immediate Care

We also offer Virtual Immediate Care, providing you more opportunity to access care for your child’s urgent health needs from the comfort of your home via telemedicine. While not every condition is right for a virtual visit, you will also have the option to book an in-person visit. 

Schedule a Virtual Immediate Care appointment via MyChart or at luriechildrens.org/makeappointment.

Visiting the Emergency Department

If your child’s injury or illness is serious or worsening, do not delay seeking care at our Emergency Department. Experienced physicians and nurses are poised around the clock to handle even the most complicated, life-threatening injuries or conditions, such as:

  • Newborns (under two months) with a fever of 100.4° F or higher
  • Severe chest pain, trouble breathing, passing out or fainting, coughing up blood
  • Severe asthma attacks
  • Severe dehydration (child is lethargic, has dry lips or mouth, hasn’t urinated in 4 to 6 hours, vomiting, diarrhea)
  • Serious allergic reactions (swelling, trouble breathing)
  • Injuries such as large and complex cuts or wounds, open or severe bone fractures, ingesting poison, serious burns
  • Sudden neurologic concerns such as changes in mental status (child is hard to wake up or is confused when you wake them up), seizures, high fevers with headache and a stiff neck, sudden changes in the ability to speak, see, walk or move
  • Safety concerns and thoughts of harming themselves or others

When to Call 911

If your child is unresponsive or there is a life-threatening emergency at home that cannot wait, please call 911 right away.

See below for a guide to help you decide the right place to seek care for your child: 

Download this guide

Common Childhood Viruses

In Chicago and many other communities across the United States, we are seeing return of common childhood respiratory viruses that became much less common in the first few years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since late summer, we have seen an increase in enteroviruses, which causes many different kinds of illnesses, such as hand-foot-and-mouth disease, respiratory illness, and/or gastrointestinal illness. Enteroviruses have not yet gone away this season, and now we are seeing other viruses in our community as well.

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)

Over the past month, we have seen a significant increase in respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Seeing increases in RSV happened every year before the pandemic, but usually later in the fall/winter. RSV typically causes a mild respiratory illness, but RSV can cause more severe disease in some people, especially if they have a weak immune system or heart or lung disease. In addition, all infants, but especially those who were born prematurely, are at risk of developing bronchiolitis from RSV. Bronchiolitis is a condition in which RSV causes inflammation and mucus in the small airways in the lungs, and this leads to cough, rapid breathing, and wheezing. Although there is not yet a vaccine for RSV, there is an antibody medicine called palivizumab that can be given to infants who are at higher risk of severe complications from RSV.

You should contact your doctor if your child has a respiratory infection and they are having a hard time breathing or are becoming dehydrated (decreased urine output, dry mouth, or no tears when they cry).

Influenza

Although we have not yet entered influenza season, we anticipate it starting soon. Unlike RSV and other respiratory viruses, we have an influenza vaccine that can prevent infection and is very effective for preventing hospitalization and death from influenza. We encourage all individuals ages 6 months or older to get their flu shot from their primary care provider as soon as they can.

COVID-19

COVID-19 is currently less common in children than these other viruses, but we anticipate another surge this winter. 

Keeping Your Child Healthy

RSV, influenza and COVID-19 can be prevented through common sense measures that protect us from all respiratory viruses. It is important to stay home when sick to avoid spreading viruses to others.

Lurie Children's experts recommend the following tips to stay healthy:

  • Visiting your pediatrician for recommended well checks and stay up to date with routine immunizations and health recommendations.
  • Practicing frequent hand washing, especially before eating and after toileting or changing children’s diapers, can protect yourself from viruses.
  • Avoiding large gatherings, especially if other sick people will be attending, as respiratory viruses are often spread in these settings. This is especially true if you or your child are at risk of more severe illness from respiratory viruses.
  • Staying up-to-date on COVID-19 vaccines and boosters can protect you against COVID-19 this winter. Patients can schedule COVID-19 vaccine online or by calling 312.227.5300.
  • Getting the flu vaccine each year during cold and flu season. 
  • Encouraging all family members and family contacts to receive important vaccinations like the COVID-19 vaccine and the flu shot, to also protect your child.

Please refer to Lurie Children’s COVID-19 Resources for continually updated information for patient families, healthcare providers and general information on the virus and keeping families healthy.

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