Top 5 Kid Emergencies … Call 911!

Let’s get down to it. When is it time to panic? When is the medical emergency real and when isn’t it? How do you know? Is blood always involved? Read on and get the 411 about when to call 911. And learn how to stay calm while you do …

When kids are in an accident, or get ill suddenly, there’s that period  — anywhere from an instant to hours — when we freeze and think, what now? What’s the protocol? How do I handle this?

So I’m going to outline the top 5 kid emergencies with the blow-by-blow on getting help fast. Please note, mamas, these aren’t the ONLY 5, just the 5 most common serious emergencies. As always, trust your gut. If you think it’s an emergency, that’s good enough for the paramedics.

1. Respiratory Distress and we mean distress. This means difficulty breathing and taking in enough oxygen. Causes may include choking, asthma, an infection, or pneumonia. The signs of respiratory distress are coughing, wheezing, noisy breathing, grunting, or turning blue.

Call 911 immediately if your child is breathing faster than 50 breaths per minute, is developing a bluish tinge around the mouth and nose, or if the situation is getting worse, not better. This includes severe croup, if you’ve already tried exposure to cool, moist air without improvement.

2. Seizures.  A seizure is a sudden spasm or convulsion of the body that’s caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain. In infants and toddlers, a rapid rise in temperature can cause a febrile seizure. Most febrile seizures end quickly and are not true emergencies, but in the heat of the moment it’s hard to know. And a seizure that occurs without fever may be more serious, so any child with a seizure should be checked by a doctor as soon as possible.

Call 911 immediately if the seizure doesn’t stop within 3 minutes. Don’t wait even that long if your child has labored breathing or is turning blue.

3. Falls and/or Head Bonks. Falling from a significant height (usually defined as at least 4-6 ft.) can injure the head, spine, or internal organs. Falling off a bed usually doesn’t. If you suspect a head bonk, talk to your child and make sure he or she answers questions appropriately. Look for evidence of injury to limbs and other body parts.

Call 911 immediately if your child lost/loses consciousness (unlikely if they cry instantly), vomits more than once, complains of numbness, or seems disoriented. Ditto if you’re worried about internal injuries or damage to the neck or spine. A child who’s behaving normally (even crying normally) is less likely to need emergency treatment. Take a look at this Mamas’ article for more head bonk advice.

4. Cuts and Bleeding. If your child is bleeding, apply pressure to the wound with a clean towel and assess the extent of the damage. The head and facial areas bleed a lot because they’re loaded with blood vessels. Watch for 2-3 minutes to be sure the blood is stopping. Kids who need stitches can usually be taken to the hospital or urgent care center by car, BUT …

Call 911 immediately if your child has a known bleeding disorder or if blood is released at high pressure and is not stopping. Continue to apply pressure ’til help arrives.

5. (Possible)Poisoning. The true meaning of scary is when your child gets into a medicine cabinet or cleaning supplies. Always grab the container of the substance you fear may have been ingested and CALL POISON CONTROL! 1-800-222-1222.

Call 911 immediately if your child is unresponsive (under any and all circumstances) or if Poison Control recommends it.

Emergencies with kids are some of the most frightening things we face as moms. Fortunately, our mind/body system seems to know this, and we’re able to focus on the task at hand (getting help) just when we need to. It’s how we’re wired.

My mother-in-law tells a funny story about an experience with her son — my husband. He was about 2, and one day she loaded him into the back seat of the car (no car seats back then) and got ready to pull out of the garage. The vinyl top of their convertible was down, and she decided to put it up before pulling away. The lifting top hit a light on the garage ceiling and shards of glass showered down, cutting Husband’s face and head.

She managed to wrap him in a towel and get to the phone to call the ambulance (no 911 then, either). When the paramedics arrived (goodness knows they weren’t called that back in the day) she handed her little bundle over and promptly fainted.

Her adrenalin rush kept her focused and on-task as long as her baby was in danger, and yours will too. But to avoid the embarrassment of losing consciousness in front of the first responders try these tips:

* Remember that even in an emergency you usually have plenty of time to get help. Children are more resilient than you think.

* Breathe. If you start to feel light headed ask yourself “am I breathing?” Count your breaths (they shouldn’t be faster than about 18 per minute) and make sure you’re exhaling fully.

* Focus on your child’s face and talk to him. If you can distract him from his pain and fear it’ll work wonders for yours.

* Come up with a mantra and repeat it to calm yourself. Saying it really does make it so. Something like we’re okay, we’re okay, we’re okay.

Finally (yes, I know, I’m repeating myself), TRUST YOUR GUT. I can’t say it enough.

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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2 responses to “Top 5 Kid Emergencies … Call 911!”

  1. Paige

    Great article Rachel! I have been in this situation a few times wondering, do I need to take my daughter to the ER? Thankfully we haven’t made any trips yet but the thought sure has crossed my mind. Thanks for spelling out the top 5 emergencies.

  2. Soccer Season Is Here — Watch Those Heads!

    […] head injuries and prevention, check these posts out: and  Email This […]

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