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When to call 911 for a child

A woman looks at a thermometer in concern and holds a phone to her ear. Behind her, a young girl looking ill is wrapped in blankets.

Jan. 13, 2019—When kids are sick or hurt, a bandage and a hug doesn't always make it better. Sometimes an ill or injured child may even need emergency care. But as a parent, how can you tell when to call 911?

Sometimes you know right away—like if a child is choking or isn't breathing. But other emergencies may be less obvious. What's more, sometimes a symptom that doesn't seem serious in an adult may actually be serious when it occurs in a child—and vice versa, notes the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP).

Know these signs

If you know it's not an emergency, you can call your child's doctor for advice. But sometimes a call to 911 is best. There are some common signs and symptoms that may mean you should make that call. They're based on information from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Academy of Family Physicians. Watch for:

  • 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.
  • Passing out.
  • Severe trouble breathing or 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 accidental 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, 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.

Learn more

The ACEP 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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