Sick child in bed blowing nose

It can be difficult to decide where to take your injured or sick child for care. Should you make a trip to the Emergency Department (ED) or UPMC Urgent Care? Can you make an online appointment? Or can your child recover at home?

If you think your child is experiencing a life-threatening condition, call 911 or go to the nearest Emergency Department.

Most parents prefer to err on the side of caution and call their pediatrician’s office, schedule a virtual visit, or go to an Urgent Care location if something is wrong. In serious situations, you may need to take your child to an Emergency Department or call 911.

If you’re deciding the right care option for your sick or injured child, we’re here to help. Here’s how to make the right choice.

Where Should You Go When Your Child Is Sick?

When deciding the proper care location for your child, it’s important to trust your gut. As the parent, you know what is normal for your child. When you have a nagging feeling that something is wrong, you should see a provider.

“Parents have a really good sense of knowing when something isn’t right with their child,” says Raymond D. Pitetti, MD, chief, Pediatric Emergency Medicine, UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. “They know how their child typically acts when they’re ill or how they react to pain.”

If you’re unsure where to take your sick child, consider the following:

  • How severe is the injury or illness?
  • What type of injury or illness are they experiencing?
  • Are they eating, drinking, and acting normally?

If you’re still not sure where to go, call their pediatrician or schedule a virtual visit to get advice on a plan of action. UPMC Children’s offers convenient pediatric video visits.

If their condition is mild and you think you can manage care at home, trust your instincts. For non-serious conditions that won’t get worse if left untreated for a day or two, schedule a checkup at your pediatrician’s office.

If your child has a severe illness or injury, seek emergency care immediately.

When you can’t decide where to take a sick child, it may be best to start with a virtual visit. A provider can diagnose or treat the problem during a virtual appointment or tell you where to go for an in-person visit.

“If you’re not sure if something is wrong with your child, a virtual visit is a nice starting point,” Dr. Pitetti says. “During a virtual visit, we can help decide if their illness is something that can wait, something that needs treatment, or if you need to go to the Emergency Department.”

What’s the Difference between the Emergency Department and Urgent Care?

For certain injuries or illnesses, you may need to visit the ED or an urgent care location.

The Emergency Department is the best option when your child requires immediate medical attention for a life-threatening condition. Emergency medicine specialists can treat severe acute and chronic problems 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

UPMC Children’s Express Care offers care for illnesses and injuries that require immediate attention but aren’t life-threatening. These locations may have limited hours, unlike an Emergency Department.

It’s also important to consider the resources available at an Emergency Department compared to an urgent care location. UPMC Children’s Express Care can provide diagnosis and treatment for a variety of urgent illnesses and injuries. But it might not offer some of the screenings and testing options an Emergency Department can.

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When Should You Take Your Child to the Emergency Department?

If your child has a life-threatening injury or illness that requires immediate medical attention, go to the Emergency Department. You should take your child to the nearest Emergency Department for these conditions and symptoms.

  • Lethargic, listless, nonresponsive, or mentally altered.
  • Difficulty breathing, such as gasping or wheezing.
  • High fever, including a rectal temperature of 100.4 F or higher in a baby under two months old.
  • Severe allergic reaction.
  • Broken bone pushing through skin.
  • Heavy bleeding.
  • Serious burns.
  • Chest pains.

Should you call 911 instead of going to the Emergency Department?

Only call 911 for help in an emergency situation. If your child is experiencing a life-threatening condition or urgent health crisis, you should call 911. Pediatric health crises may include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Bleeding that doesn’t stop with direct pressure.
  • Choking.
  • Gasping, turning colors, or difficulty breathing.
  • Symptoms of stroke.
  • Ingesting poison.
  • Severe asthma attack.
  • Unconsciousness or lack of response.
  • Serious injury from an accident.

Should you take your child to a pediatric Emergency Department?

Adult Emergency Departments should be able to handle straightforward pediatric problems. For more complex illnesses and injuries, a pediatric Emergency Department may be better able to care for your child. The UPMC Children’s Emergency Department is located in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood.

Consider the seriousness of your child’s condition and the time it will take to travel to a pediatric Emergency Department. For serious conditions, have your child treated as quickly as possible.

“For any child that is really sick, you should go to the nearest Emergency Department,” Dr. Pitetti says. “Do not delay care to travel an hour to a pediatric Emergency Department if there is another location five minutes away from your home.”

When Should You Take Your Child to Urgent Care?

Urgent care is a treatment option for your child’s mild injuries and illnesses when their pediatrician is unavailable.

You can take your child to one of our UPMC Children’s Express Care locations for the following conditions:

  • Animal bites, bee stings, and tick bites.
  • Asthma attacks and wheezing.
  • Bronchitis/bronchiolitis, and pneumonia.
  • Colds, fever, flu, and other viral illnesses.
  • Ear, throat, and sinus infections.
  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration assessment.
  • Rashes, poison ivy, and allergic reactions.
  • Scrapes, bumps, cuts, and splinters.
  • Simple fractures, twists, sprains, and strains.

When Should You Schedule a Virtual Visit?

If you’re struggling to decide the right care location for your child, a pediatric virtual visit is often the best place to start.

“Virtual visits usually don’t take very long and can help differentiate between an Emergency Department, urgent care, or if your child needs to be seen at all,” says Dr. Pitetti.

With UPMC Children’s AnywhereCare, parents can access expert pediatric care 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“Any time of the day or night, you can have an AnywhereCare visit,” Dr. Pitetti says.

Emergency medicine specialists can diagnose conditions and write prescriptions over live video. Our providers can also screen children exposed to COVID-19 and order testing without an in-person visit.

Virtual visits are a helpful option, especially for conditions treated by a pediatrician or urgent care provider. Virtual visits can screen or treat the following conditions:

  • Cold and flu.
  • Sinus infections.
  • Rashes.
  • Tick bites.
  • Bronchitis/coughing.
  • Sinus infections.

Children’s illnesses don’t take a holiday. And neither do we. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh offers in-person and video options to get care for your child 24/7. And it’s not just available during the holidays — it’s here all year long. For more information or to schedule a visit, please visit CHP.edu/Gingerbread.

About Pediatrics

From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh ranks consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital is a longtime national leader for women and their newborns. We aim to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond.