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Should I Take My Kid to the Emergency Room Right Now?

Hospitals are overburdened and some of the prime vectors for coronavirus infection. So if you can help it, you should take care of kid injuries at home. Here's how to make the call.

Keeping a kid inside doesn’t mean you’re going to keep them injury-free. There’s a reason one of the more popular kid’s songs is about the dangers of jumping on the bed. But when mama called the doctor lately, the doctor said, “hospitals are overloaded, the danger of contracting COVID-19 there is very real, and you might need to take care of that scrape yourself. Oh, and no more monkeys jumping on the bed.”

Right now, if your child’s injury isn’t severe, it is safer to treat them at home. “If it’s pretty mild — sprained ankle, scrape, sunburn, those sorts of things — it’s going to be safer for you for a couple of reasons,” says Frank Petruzella, chief of pediatric medicine at Children’s Hospital of Richmond. Not only does going to the hospital increase your child’s risk of picking up the coronavirus, but your kid could also spread the disease to others if they have the virus but no symptoms. Treating the injury at home also relieves pressure on our strained medical system. So how do you make the call between an injury that is hospital-worthy and one that you can safely take care of with gauze and a band-aid?

When in doubt, of course, pick up the phone. Call your primary care pediatrician if you’re not sure whether the injury is severe enough to warrant a trip to the emergency room. While you wait for an answer, this guide should help inform and keep minor injuries well-treated.

Skin Wounds and Kids Emergency Room Decisions

If your child has a minor cut or scrape, stay home. But if the wound is deep and it doesn’t stop bleeding after you apply pressure to it, you may need to get stitches in the emergency room, says Amy Bollinger, program manager of pediatric trauma and injury prevention at Penn State Children’s Hospital. Be especially wary if the cut is to the stomach, face, neck, or chest. If your child is less than a year old, you should without question call your doctor for advice, according to Seattle Children’s. A quick video call with your pediatrician can help you decide whether stitches are necessary. Act quickly to avoid infection.

If the cut isn’t deep, simply wash it out with soap and water. Apply antibiotic ointment and cover it with a bandage.

Broken Bones and Kids Emergency Room Decisions

Broken bones are almost always serious and should be seen by a doctor. If you’re not sure if your child’s bone is broken, check for swelling, deformity, and severe pain.

Broken toes, however, don’t require an urgent trip to the emergency room, according to Children’s Hospital Colorado, though you should visit a doctor during normal office hours. Other broken toes don’t require medical attention. Treat them at home with pain medicine and comfortable shoes.

Swallowed Objects, Poison and Kids Emergency Room Decisions

If there’s the tiniest bit of doubt about a kid swallowing poison — even if it’s whether or not they did in fact swallow the poison, call Poison Control. That’s 1-800-222-1222. They will help you determine whether you need to go to the emergency room and can even call ahead and brief the doctors.

There are a few red flags you should be aware of. If your child swallowed a button battery or magnet, seek help immediately. These materials can cause internal organ damage and ingesting them may require emergency surgery. Keep alcohol, medications, and the cleaning supplies you’re obsessively using out of reach. Also beware of art supplies, toiletries, makeup, and laundry detergent pods.

Falls and Kids Emergency Room Decisions

Falls are the most common type of injury that send kids to the hospital, according to the Children’s Safety Network. A fall above about two or two and a half times your child’s height —  such as a young grade school child falling from a bunk bed — is dangerous. Seek emergency care if your child is unconscious for any amount of time after falling, if they seem groggy or confused after 30 minutes to an hour, if they vomit, or if they have a seizure. The same rules apply if the child hits their head in another way, such as running into the corner of a table.

Most falls do not lead to severe injury. If the child doesn’t have the symptoms listed above, treat any bumps or bruises they have with an ice pack, according to KidsHealth from Nemours. You can give your kid pain medicine and let them rest, but watch them for symptoms that may develop over the next 24 hours.

Burns and Kids Emergency Room Decisions

If a burn covers more than about the size of a quarter, Bollinger says you should take your child to the emergency room. The providers there can determine whether your child needs to go to a specialty burn center. Be especially concerned with burns on the face, scalp, chest, genitals, hands, feet, and joints. Also seek immediate medical help if the cause of the burn was chemicals, an electrical wire or socket, or fire, according to KidsHealth.

If the burn is not serious and doesn’t cover a large amount of skin, you can treat it at home. Rinse the burned skin under lukewarm water. If the burn formed a blister, don’t pop it. Cover the burn with aloe gel or cream and a bandage. Keep it clean to avoid infection.

Insect Bites and Stings and Kids Emergency Room Decisions

Unless a child is allergic to an insect, bites and stings can be treated at home. But if a child has a serious allergy, treat them with an EpiPen as soon as possible after the sting. If the stinger gets stuck in the body, scrape it off with your fingernail or a credit card. Don’t use tweezers because they can release more venom into the body. Afterwards, bring your child to the emergency room because they may get a second wave of symptoms. If the child is not allergic, wash the bite or sting with soap and water. Ice the affected area to alleviate pain.

Emergency Room-Proofing Your Home for Quarantine

Prevention is the best way to keep your kid safe. And during the pandemic, it’s more important than ever. There are hundreds of things you can do to cushion your home and reduce the chance of injury. Here are some of the top options:

  • Make helmets a rule for bike and scooter rides.
  • Keep poisonous materials such as cleaners, medicine, and alcohol out of reach and behind lock and key.
  • Strap babies and toddlers into high chairs, swings, and strollers.
  • Install guard rails at the top and bottom of stairs.
  • Install window guards in windows above the first floor that don’t lead to a fire escape.
  • Separate older children’s toys, which may contain batteries, from younger children’s toys.
  • Always supervise children when they’re in the kitchen.
  • Check that your smoke detectors are working properly.