Knowing When an Emergency is a True Emergency

July 12, 2013

Dr. Donna Eckardt, medical director of the

pediatric emergency department at Mercy Children's Hospital.

ST. LOUIS - Parents often ask me “Would you have brought your child here for this problem?” As an emergency room doctor, I have a pretty good idea when a child needs to be seen in the emergency department. My kids often joke that they have to be bleeding or unconscious to get my undivided attention. But the truth is, as a mom, when kids are sick, I just want them to feel better as soon as possible. For most parents, knowing when an illness or injury is severe enough to take their kids to the emergency department can be tough – especially with other options like urgent care and convenient care clinics available when doctors’ offices are closed.

There are some very clear symptoms that should be handled in the emergency room. If your child experiences any of the following, don’t wait – call 911 or get to your nearest hospital ER:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Choking on an object
  • Fever with stiff neck, dark rash, inconsolable crying or difficulty waking up
  • Deep cuts or bleeding that won't stop
  • Coughing up or vomiting blood
  • Severe burns
  • Seizures
  • Allergic reaction with difficulty breathing, loss of consciousness, or swelling of the tongue, lips or airway
  • Vomiting, blurred vision, severe headache, loss of motor skills or bleeding from the nose or ears following a fall or head injury
  • Signs of shock following an injury: pale or blue lips, difficulty breathing, changes in alertness
  • Objects impaled in the body
  • Severe bites (animal or human)
  • Heat stroke, frostbite, hypothermia
  • Poisonings

Beyond these problems, the decision on where to seek care becomes a little more difficult. Many people are familiar with urgent cares and they’re becoming more common. They are open outside of normal doctor office hours and treat simple cuts, wounds, minor burns and broken bones, insect bites, sprains and strains, along with other common health concerns.

A newer option for care outside traditional doctor hours are convenient care clinics. Convenient cares are usually open later in the evenings and on weekends, and offer walk-in visits without appointments. The health care professionals there treat coughs, colds, sinus infections, sore throats, ear infections, rashes, pink eye, upset stomachs, urinary tract infections and other minor health conditions. If you receive treatment at one of these, it’s important to make sure your medical records are shared with your pediatrician so they know what’s been treated and prescribed. For some conditions, such as ear infections, follow-up care might be needed.

There’s no manual for raising kids, but parents usually have pretty good intuition when their child isn’t acting or feeling right. Keep the major symptoms in mind and if your child doesn’t have any of those and your pediatrician isn’t available, urgent and convenient care clinics can be good options.

Dr. Donna Eckardt is a Mercy Clinic emergency medicine physician and medical director of the pediatric emergency department at Mercy Children’s Hospital. For more information about Mercy Urgent Care and Convenient Care locations, please visit

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