Tuesday, February 25, 2014

What should I do after hours when my child is sick?

Parents often fret about whether or not to go to the ER (or urgent care center or walk in clinic) for a child's illness or injury. This week the American Academy of Pediatrics released a position statement against walk in clinics. Many parents don't realize the difference between a pharmacy walk in clinic and an urgent care or ER staffed with pediatric - trained physicians, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants. I believe that urgent needs do arise after office hours, and we are fortunate in our area to have pediatric urgent cares and ERs that can fit that need.

This post is written with my own practice patients in mind. There are variances in what is available in any community and what  a pediatrician is comfortable seeing in the office and what they refer out. Please speak with your own physician about what to do after hours in your situation.

photo source: Shutterstock

I also know that many parents take their kids to walk in clinics for convenience. Sometimes even when our office is open. I think that really fragments the healthcare of the child and I cannot support going outside the medical home when unnecessary. I've blogged about this before. Please visit Urgent Cares for Routine Illnesses... Yes or No for more on that topic.

When to call for after hours advice

Over the years I have found most of my patient families to be very respectful of after hours phone calls. They recognize that I am trying to spend time with my family or that they woke me from sleep. They often apologize for bothering me (which isn't necessary, it is my job). Only on rare occasions do they call for things that should have been called during office hours or in true emergencies where they should call 911. It is a reasonable call if you need help managing the symptoms your child has, especially if you can't find your answer on our searchable website. If you want a diagnosis or prescription, your child will need to be seen and evaluated.

Things to avoid calling the on call provider about:

  • To schedule an appointment. We don't do that. Leave a message at the office or request an appointment on our portal.
  • To cancel an appointment. Leave a message at the office for the office staff.
  • Any billing question. 
  • To ask when we open. That information is on our website and our office outgoing voicemail message.
  • To discuss a chronic issue that you have been working on with your primary provider -- unless symptoms have worsened and you need treatment advice.
  • To discuss treatment from another office, such as a walk in clinic not in our office or a specialist that is managing a chronic illness. If you question something done by another provider, talk first with that provider. If you want to discuss it with your primary physician, call during office hours or send a message through our portal. 
  • Prescription refills. It is a very unusual circumstance that we would call out a refill for you.
  • A diagnosis and prescription. We cannot make a diagnosis over the phone and cannot prescribe a new medication for something that hasn't been seen.
  • Rashes. See below.
  • Symptoms that have been ongoing for days but not worsening. If symptoms have been stable for days, it can wait until we are open for your child to be seen.
  • Routine growth, development, or behavior questions.
  • Routine lab results. Sometimes our nurses call with lab results, but must leave a cryptic message. (Due to HIPAA laws they do not leave specific information on voicemail-- another reason to be sure each of your children are registered on our password protected portal-- we can leave specific details there!). If it is a result that requires notification of the parent urgently, they will tell the on call provider to call you or they will give you instructions to call back (with the knowledge of the on call person). If they say to call back during business hours, the on call person does not have your results on hand.
  • To "document" suspected abuse. These kids should always be taken to a place that can see your child directly and has staff specifically trained for that purpose. We usually recommend an emergency room, such as the ones at Children's Mercy campuses. A phone call is hearsay and would not help your case.
  • Directions to an urgent care or ER. I don't give good directions, just ask my husband. Call them, look online, or set a GPS.
  • Prior authorization before going to the ER or an urgent care. We cannot do PA's after hours and they are not needed for insurance companies.
  • To learn if a particular location is covered by your insurance. Call that location or check with your insurance company. We won't know. 
  • To ask if an urgent care or walk in clinic provides a particular service, such as possible urinary tract infection in a toddler or stitches. We won't know. Call them for information about what they do.
  • Anything that needs to be treated urgently. Calling us delays care. We can be notified later. Just go. 
  • And one last request. Please don't call from the ER or urgent care waiting room to ask if it's okay to leave because the wait's too long. If you thought symptoms needed to be seen in the first place, I would never feel comfortable telling you to leave. Ask someone there who can see your child.

How can you find answers if you don't want to call after hours? 

  • For our patients, using our online portal allows parents to ask routine questions at any time of day/night, as long as they can wait up to 5 business days for a reply. 
  • Our website has a ton of information to treat many symptoms and parents can search there before calling. (Parents will often say, "I looked on the website but didn't find..." so I know they try! Thank you for trying!!! It not only helps the on call provider not be bombarded with another call, but you will often get more thourough advice, especially in the middle of the night.) 
  • Online searches can be helpful ONLY if you know the site you are using. Besides our own website, you can use HealthyChildren, KidsHealth, or recognized hospital websites, such as CHOP.
  • Remember: We are open 6 days a week and we offer walk in hours all open business hours. This allows you to come in to our office for most illnesses and minor injuries.
For more on how to get the best phone advice when you call our office or after hours on call provider, please read Help Us Help You.

Times to go to the ER or Urgent Care: 

The big question in a parent's mind is when does a child need to be brought to a walk in clinic or emergency room. If in doubt after reading this, call the on call provider for specific advice. Some generalizations to help make the decision:

  • Any temperature over 100.5 in a baby under 2-3months of age. (I usually say at least 2 weeks after the 2 month vaccines.) A pediatric specific ER is best for this unless our office is open. (We can do the initial evaluation if we are open.)
  • Any temperature over 100.5 in an under-immunized or immune deficient child. Be sure to tell the providers of the medical history that makes your child high risk. We can see these kids when we are open. An ER, ideally pediatric specific, is best for this when we are closed.
  • Signs of dehydration. This includes no tears, dry mouth (not just lips), no urine in 6-8 hours. Dehydration can be managed in some urgent cares and all ERs. (Call the urgent care to see if it is within their scope of practice.) Walk in centers are NOT generally equipped to manage dehydration. Our office can see these kids if we are open. 
  • A child who is urinating a lot but still seems dehydrated based on dry mouth, weight loss, sunken eyes, etc needs to be seen immediately. This is a sign of diabetes and needs to be seen in an ER if we are closed.
  • Signs of respiratory distress. This includes breathing faster than 60 times / minute in children under 1 year, 50 times / minute in older children. This can be treated in our office when we are open, or in a pediatric urgent care or ER. Walk in centers should be avoided due to provider variations in competence with respiratory distress.
  • Excessive pain. If you can't control the pain with simple measures, such as acetaminophen or immobilizing a hurt limb, it should be evaluated. ERs are more suitable if it is a possible surgical issue or if imaging will be required.
  • Gaping skin. If an injury causes the skin to open enough that it looks better if you pinch it together, it probably needs to be repaired. Stitches, glue, or staples need to be put in as soon as possible because the longer the wound is open the more likely it will become infected and after several hours we can no longer close it up. ERs will always do wound repair. Some urgent cares will. Walk in clinics generally do not. During office hours we can do laceration repair, so you can save the trip to the ER if we're open!
  • Altered mental status. If your child is so lethargic he can't lift an arm to drink, or doesn't seem to recognize you, or doesn't make sense when talking he needs to be seen immediately in an ER.
  • Parental comfort. This is a vague one, but I am a big believer in the gut feelings of a parent. If you are worried and can't sleep, there might be something going on. Of course, you can't second guess every illness or injury, but if you are so worried you can't sleep: go.
  • Call 911 and go to the ER if there is a severe illness or injury that may be life threatening.
  • Go to the ER if you suspect your illness or injury might require surgery. 
  • If you suspect an x-ray will be needed after an injury, use an ER or urgent care with the ability to do X-rays. During office hours our office can handle minor injuries. If you suspect a broken bone but the child is not in extreme pain, there is no obvious angling of the bone, and the skin is not broken over the area, it may be okay to wait until our office opens.
  • A child who loses consciousness after injury or with illness generally should be seen. Call 911 if consciousness does not resolve quickly. (Note: many kids will "pass out" when standing in a hot room or singing, when toddlers cry hard, when kids see blood, or if they hyperventilate due to excitement or pain. They usually awaken quickly from these episodes. If they act normal after this brief passing out time, they can generally be seen in our office. Call for advice.)
  • Eye injuries that involve a puncture to the eye, a possible fracture of the bone around the eye, unequal pupil size, bleeding from the eye, vision changes, or other serious concerns should be seen in an ER. (Minor eye injuries, such as a possible scratch to the eye, can be seen in our office or a pediatric urgent care.)
  • Seizures should generally be seen in an ER (unless there is a history of seizures and home treatment is available). If your child is running a fever when the seizure starts, call for instructions. It might be appropriate to be seen in our office or a pediatric urgent care.
  • Allergic reactions involving hives or facial swelling can be seen in our office when open, an ER or pediatric urgent cares unless difficulty breathing (in which case, call 911 and go to the ER). Even if your child has epinephrine available, they need to be seen after epinephrine is used.
  • Severe difficulty breathing should be called to 911 to be taken to the ER.
  • Severe headache should be seen in the ER.
  • Severe abdominal pain that does not allow the child to move normally should be seen in the ER. This could be a surgical issue.
  • If you are unable to drive your child safely for any reason but they need to be seen, call 911.

Typical things seen at urgent cares or walk in clinics are things that usually would be seen in our office when we're open. Many can wait until we're open if you can manage pain, hydration, and breathing at home.

  • mild wheezing or difficulty breathing that isn't worsening
  • minor burns and injuries
  • abdominal pain that is minor without dehydration
  • constipation
  • pink eye
  • ear aches
  • sore throat
  • vomiting and diarrhea without dehydration (as discussed above)
  • fever in children over 3 months of age who are immunized and immune competent
  • objects in ears or noses 
  • insect bites
  • mild allergic reactions
  • cough and colds
  • skin rashes
  • urinary tract infections 
  • sports physicals should ideally be done at your primary care office so that growth, development, safety, and other issues can be addressed
  • vaccines should ideally be done at your primary care office to keep all records in one place. If your child gets a vaccine elsewhere, be sure to call the PCP office during office hours to update their chart.

A few common concerns that parents call about:


Parents typically spend a lot of time giving me a play by play of all the temperatures of the past week.  I really don't need to know every up and down of the temperature. What does it really tell me if a child has a fever? They are sick. That's about it. There is no magic temperature that I worry about for most kids over 3 months of age. If your child is younger than 3 months, is not up to date on recommended vaccines, or has an immune deficiency, they need to be seen for any fever over 100.5F. For other kids, I care more how a child looks and acts than the temperature itself. The goal of fever management is to keep a child comfortable and hydrated. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends treating temperatures over 102F and for comfort. The goal is not to bring the temperature to normal, but to allow your child to feel more comfortable. For more on fevers, see my Fever blog as well as our website's Fever page.


Rashes are notoriously difficult to describe. I have a hard time documenting them in the medical record and will sometimes simply take a picture to put it in the child's chart. Even a picture doesn't completely tell the story because it does not show the texture, temperature of the skin, or the evolution over time of the rash. After seeing the rash we need to look for other findings that could be associated with that type of rash (such as enlarged lymph nodes, swollen spleen, swollen tonsils, mouth ulcers, etc). In general a rash needs to be seen to be addressed. Phone calls for rashes (even during office hours) are not helpful. It only needs to be seen emergently if there are significant other concerns. If the rash bothers the parent more than the child, schedule an appointment.

Ear Pain

Earaches generally are not emergencies. If you can control the pain at home with an over the counter fever reducer, you can usually wait until office hours. The exceptions: other symptoms, such as dehydration, difficulty breathing, or Mastoiditis -- If the ear physically sticks out from the head more than normal, it is an emergency. For more on earaches, see our Ear Pain web page.

Vomiting and/or Diarrhea

Stomach bugs are very difficult to manage, but usually can be managed at home. Follow the instructions on our Vomiting and Diarrhea page. Signs of dehydration include: dry inside the mouth, extreme weakness, no tears, and decreased urine (except with vomiting from diabetic ketoacidosis - those kids make a lot of urine but they otherwise look dehydrated). If you think your child is dehydrated, he should be seen. Diarrhea that is bloody, severe abdominal pain, and painful urination with vomiting are other times that being seen as early as possible is warranted.

Sore Throat

Sore throats can be painful, but with good hydration and no signs of difficulty breathing, they can wait until office hours.

Medication dosing

Unfortunately many over the counter medicines don't have dosing listed for infants and young children. We have common medications on our Medication Dosing page. You can also ask the pharmacist when you purchase the medicine. I personally don't like to give dosing amounts over the phone, especially if you wake me from sleep. It would be too easy to give the wrong amount, which could be dangerous for your child. It is safer for you to always learn your child's dose when you buy the medication.

Continued illness despite treatment 

Sometimes parents call because they're frustrated that their child is still sick after a few days. Typically these are Sunday evening calls because the parent wants to get back to work Monday. I can't fix this over the phone. See Evolution of Illness for more on how illnesses evolve over time.

No comments:

Post a Comment