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Should I Take My Child to the Pediatrician, Urgent Care or Emergency Department?

By Dr. Sarah Kay Herrera, a CHOC Children’s pediatrician

At CHOC Children’s, we know that parents want to be confident they’re giving their child the best care. In order to do that, you need to know where to bring them when they’re sick, but the problem is there are so many options: Do I bring them to the pediatrician’s office? Urgent care? Emergency department? This can make you feel overwhelmed and confused – especially with cold and flu season just around the corner.

We believe parents should have peace of mind they are getting their child the best care. We know it can be scary, stressful and sad to have a sick child. That’s why our Primary Care Network has 16 convenient locations throughout Orange County and beyond. CHOC Children’s Hospital in Orange offers the only emergency department in Orange County that’s just for kids. At the Mission Hospital Emergency Department, in partnership with CHOC Children’s at Mission Hospital, kids and families have access to pediatric-trained nurses, physicians and specialists.

To help you make decisions about where to go for care, consult this guide:

1. Pediatrician

Your pediatrician’s office is not only a place for check-ups, but your primary resource for sick visits as well. Your child’s pediatrician is the doctor who already knows your child’s medical history.

  • You will need to set an appointment for a sick visit, which could include symptoms like fever, runny nose, cough, ear pain, headaches, sore throat, rashes or abdominal pain.
  • If your child is experiencing a chronic lingering issue such as abdominal pain or headaches, it is best to see your pediatrician as they can provide ongoing care and find a pattern in the symptoms, which is important for more complex illnesses.

Here’s a helpful guide of what to bring to the pediatrician’s office.

2. Urgent care

  • Urgent care offices are usually open after business hours, which is typically after 5 p.m. and weekends.
  • Most are walk-in clinics and do not take appointments. This means you can usually expect long wait times. This is the best place to go for acute illness such as fevers, ear pain, runny nose, cough, sore throat, vomiting, diarrhea, minor falls, and stitches.
  • Sometimes your pediatrician or an urgent care provider may decide your child is too ill to go home and they may send you to the emergency department for further treatment or testing.

Emergency department

  • In some cases, it’s best to go straight to the emergency department for apparent life-threatening events, which could include rapid and fast breathing, head trauma, trauma with loss of consciousness or vomiting, motor vehicle accidents, severe abdominal pain or dehydration.
  • An infant less than 28 days old with a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher is considered an emergency and should be taken directly to the ED.
  • Here’s a helpful checklist of what to bring to the emergency department.
  • Not all urgent care clinics and emergency rooms take care of children on a regular basis. It is best to go somewhere that specializes in children’s health. Pediatric-focused facilities have specialized training and equipment to offer the best care for your child.
  • Most pediatrician offices have a phone triage line to help parents decide which place may be best for their child.
Looking for a pediatrician? Find one near you.

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One thought on “Should I Take My Child to the Pediatrician, Urgent Care or Emergency Department?”

  1. Hi,
    So from what I understand urgent care is for everything else than life threatening situations, am I correct? We recently had a pretty embarrassing situation with our little son as he was experiencing loose stomach problems and we ran in to to closest emergency room only to realize that it was not the place to go to. The more you know!
    Thanks!

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