This weekend my kids had a series of medical mishaps, including a broken wrist and a couple of cases of strep throat. It was a good reminder about the importance of being prepared for trips to the ER or urgent care with children. Unexpected illness and injuries are stressful for everyone, but they can be especially hard for neurodiverse kids (autism, adhd, etc) who might struggle with changes to their routine, have a higher sensitivity to pain & discomfort, and be uncomfortable with new people and places. Here are some quick tips for preparing now when things are calm and everyone is well, in order to make these unexpected medical visits smoother for your family.
Know which ER(s) and which urgent care(s) you prefer ahead of time and keep a list somewhere that’s easy to access. I like to use the Notes app on my phone with the name, hours, address, phone number, and website of the clinics, because I can easily share it with others and it’s at my fingertips all the time. Keep a printed version on the fridge for babysitters or other caregivers.
If you’re in a bigger city or town that has many options or you haven’t needed these services in the past, ask around to friends and neighbors to help you build your list. If there’s a pediatric-specific urgent care nearby, that’s preferable as they are better suited for working with kids. Also look for any speciality clinics. For example, if there’s an orthopedic urgent care, that’s preferable to a general urgent care for sprains, strains, or ruling out minor fractures. Because they aren’t full of people with infections, the wait should be shorter and the staff are experts in orthopedic issues.
In urgent but non-emergent situations, if you have a few minutes to prepare before getting in the car, quickly grab the following:
- Sweatshirts or coats and a small blanket as clinics and ERs are often cold and the ‘fight or flight response’ when we are injured or upset can also cause shivering.
- Water bottles and a snack (in case of long wait time)
- Distractions (books, toys, devices, etc)
- Comfort items such as lovies, noise-canceling headphones, chewy necklaces.
- Diaper bag for infants
- In the case of a sprain, strain, or suspected fracture, administering an age & weight-appropriate dose of ibuprofen prior to getting in the car can provide some pain relief in case there’s a long wait to be seen.
If you have time, check the urgent care website before you go to see if you can hold a spot or ‘get in line’ virtually. If you have multiple children, try to get another family member, neighbor, or friend to watch your other kids to make the trip less hectic. Many times you will be hurrying out the door only to get to the clinic and wait in line, so it’s best to take a few minutes to prepare before you leave (in non-emergencies).
Here are some tips to help you decide whether Urgent Care or the ER is more appropriate:
- Urgent Care – if your child can’t be seen by their pediatrician that day, consider urgent care for:
- Suspected illnesses like flu, strep throat, covid
- Pink eye (conjunctivitis)
- Ear infection
- Strains, sprains, or suspected fracture without major swelling or obvious bone displacement
- Minor cuts/wounds
- Emergency Room: If you are uncertain, call 911 or head to the ER.
- Infant < 3 months old with a fever.
- Suspected fracture with swelling or obviously displaced bones.
- Breathing difficulties
- Burns on hands, feet, genitals, face, or scalp; large burns anywhere on body (size equal or greater than area of child’s palm); 2nd or 3rd degree burns; chemical or electrical burns; signs of infection (pus, swelling, redness);
- Deep cuts
- Child is lethargic or not as responsive as usual
- Head injury with loss of consciousness
- Dehydration (no urination x 12 hours, lethargy, dry lips – diarrhea and vomiting can quickly dehydrate a child)
- Intense and constant abdominal pain
- Blood in the stool
Having a plan of where to go ahead of time will help calm your nerves when an illness or injury arises in your family. Hopefully you won’t need your list, but if you do you will be able to make quicker decisions with less stress, and keep the process as smooth as possible for you and your child(ren).