Maybe you’re new to the world of kid accidents, or maybe you just need a refresher. Our primer will help you feel prepared—and your child stay calm—the next time she gets hurt.
When you're a parent, you’re also a cook, a chauffeur, a counselor, a tutor, a handyman, a coach, and more. But perhaps the scariest role you’ll have to fill at some point is that of an EMT. You know how it goes: You turn your back for just a few seconds and then suddenly your kid is bleeding, or holding a wrist that’s swelling before your eyes, or screaming after touching the hot pan you thought was totally out of reach.
It’s entirely possible that all of your family’s health emergencies will be pretty minor. But being prepared for the bigger problems, just in case, is important. You don’t actually need to have medical training, of course. What you do need to know is how to recognize the following serious situations, the steps you should take right away, and whether you should call your doc or 911, or go to the E.R.
1. Head Injury
The Signs: After a bump to the head, red flags of a concussion can include passing out (even briefly), severe headache, vomiting, confusion, sleepiness, or difficulty walking.
What to Do Immediately: Check your child. If he seems to have hurt his neck—which is possible if he fell on his head—or has any weakness or tingling in his arms, keep him still and call 911. If he hit his head at a sports event, he must stop playing at once to avoid a second injury. Also call 911 if he passes out after a fall and has any trouble waking up. Go to an emergency room if he has a severe headache or if he’s confused, much sleepier than usual, stumbling, persistently vomiting, or doing anything else that’s worrisome. Otherwise, you should still call your doctor for advice right away.
Don't: Give ibuprofen to a child with a head injury. The drug may increase bleeding, which can be dangerous when there’s the potential risk (even a super-slight one) of a brain injury
Do (if minor): Wrap an ice pack or a bag of frozen peas in a thin towel and hold it against the area to reduce swelling. You can also offer acetaminophen for pain. As long as your kid seems like his usual self, just watch him for changes in symptoms or behavior. “Rest is actually part of the treatment for a concussion, and most young children will need some after even a minor head injury,” says Ethan Wiener, M.D., associate chief of pediatric emergency medicine at NYU Langone Health, in New York City.
2. Severe Allergic Reaction
The Signs: Your child could break out in hives. Her face or lips might swell, and she may cough or breathe with difficulty. Dizziness, vomiting, or diarrhea are also possible.
What to Do Immediately: If there is an epinephrine injector (such as an EpiPen) available, use it. Even if she seems better afterward, take her to an E.R. anyway—the effects of the medication can wear off. If she is experiencing difficulty speaking or breathing, or if she passes out, don’t bother with the emergency room—call 911 immediately. No injector? Call 911. Make her comfortable. Check to see if you have any Benadryl (diphenhydramine) in the house, and give it to your child as you wait for help to arrive.
How & When to Use an EpiPen
3. Chipped or Knocked-Out Tooth
The Signs: In addition to the obvious dental damage, the area around his mouth might be red.
What to Do Immediately: Call your dentist right away, especially if it’s a permanent tooth. If you can’t reach her, head to the emergency room. A chipped tooth with an exposed nerve requires immediate attention. Place a knocked-out permanent tooth back in its socket ASAP if your child can hold it in its spot by biting a paper towel or a clean washcloth. (Rinse the tooth gently if need be.) Otherwise, keep the tooth in a sealed container with milk or a bit of saliva.
The Signs: Again, this is an injury that is hard to miss. But most nosebleeds look worse than they are.
What to Do Immediately: Have your child tilt her head forward slightly, and then pinch her nose tightly just below the nasal bone with a towel or a wad of tissue. Squirting just a little Afrin Original Nasal Spray into each nostril may help too. Hold this position for ten to 15 minutes to try to stop the bleeding. Be patient! “You need to do this for longer than you think, so set a phone timer,” suggests Christopher Hogrefe, M.D., clinical assistant professor of emergency medicine at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago. An hour or so after the nosebleed stops and a clot forms, you can dab Vaseline on the inside of the nostril to keep it moist.
Don't: Allow your child to lean back. If she does, blood may go down her throat and into her stomach, which can cause her to throw up. Discourage your kid from blowing her nose for several hours, as even a short, gentle blow could trigger the bleeding again. Don’t stuff tissue or cotton up her nostril either!
When to Get Help: If the bleeding doesn’t stop within 30 minutes or if you suspect her nose is broken as a result of trauma because it looks out of place, head to the E.R.
How to Stop a Nosebleed
5. Broken Bone
The Signs: If the bone is crooked or sticking out, it’s broken. But often it’s less clear. After an injury, if your child is in a lot of pain, has swelling in the injured area, throws up, or feels light-headed, it is possible that a bone is broken.
What to Do Immediately: Make him comfortable. Move the affected limb as little as possible. Call 911 if the bone is sticking out or crooked or if he’s in severe pain. If not, call your doctor for advice, or go to the E.R.
6. Eye Injury
The Signs: Your child will probably be in a lot of pain and will rub or press on his eye(s), which might be red or tearing heavily.
What to Do Immediately: Call 911 if there’s obvious damage to the eye or if whatever is in it has burned his face too, if he’s having trouble breathing, or if he faints. Don’t force the eye open or f lush it if there was trauma from a direct blow or an object. Otherwise, hold it open as best you can and pour saline solution or tap water into it. If he seems fine, call your doctor. Go to the E.R. if he doesn’t.
The Signs: She’s having trouble breathing and may hold her hands to her throat or faint. It can happen while she’s eating or playing, if she put a toy in her mouth.
What to Do Immediately: Keep talking. If your child can answer you with simple sounds, his airway is clear, says Mark Morocco, M.D., clinical professor of emergency medicine at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. If he can’t respond, get someone to call 911 or dial it yourself and put the phone on speaker. Then do the Heimlich maneuver: Wrap your arms around your child’s waist, make a fist, and place the thumb side of your fist against his upper abdomen (just below his rib cage). Now grasp your fist with your other hand and perform quick, upward thrusts until the item is expelled. (With a baby or a toddler, pick up your child, turn him facedown, and use the heel of your hand to deliver firm back blows between his shoulder blades.)
Don't: Respond aggressively. “If your child is coughing but can talk, let him cough up the item,” Dr. Carius says. Resist the urge to put your fingers in his mouth or down his throat.
When to Get Help: If his breathing seems strange or he can’t speak normally after the episode, take him to the E.R. Always call 911 if your child becomes unresponsive.
8. Bleeding Wound
The Signs: A cut is serious when the bleeding doesn’t stop after you’ve applied pressure for a few minutes.
What to Do Immediately: Flush the wound with tap water and soap, dab on an antibiotic ointment, and put on a bandage. If you see blood through the bandage, apply direct pressure for 15 minutes and elevate the injured area above the heart to stop the bleeding, says Dr. Hogrefe.
Don't: Clean a cut with alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, or Betadine (an antiseptic). Alcohol stings like mad (which makes for an unhappy kiddo), and hydrogen peroxide and Betadine can damage skin, preventing healing.
When to Get Help: If a wound is large, gaping, or gushing blood, your child might need stitches, so head to your doctor (provided your kid can be seen right away). Go to the E.R. if you see deep tissues, ligaments, or bone; if you can’t stop the bleeding within 15 minutes; or if you think there may be a foreign body embedded. Don’t wait too long: “If the cut is open for more than 24 hours, we generally won’t glue or suture it because then there’s a higher risk of infection,” says Dr. Wiener. Instead, most doctors will clean, dress, and bandage the wound; this is a safe route to healing that may cause slightly more scarring.
Baby Care Basics: Baby First Aid
The Signs: Symptoms depend on the poison. They commonly include burns on the mouth, difficulty breathing, sleepiness, and vomiting. Poisoning could be to blame any time your young child is suddenly ill or acting strangely.
What to Do Immediately: If she’s having trouble breathing or staying awake, call 911. Otherwise call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222 to find out whether you need to get medical attention. It’s helpful if you know what she ingested; if possible, have the container handy and be ready to tell the staffer what your child weighs and how much you think she consumed.
The Signs: Your child’s skin could be very red and blistered. A third-degree burn, the worst kind, can appear white or black.
What to Do Immediately: Hold the area under a cool tap for ten to 15 minutes to cool the skin, ease pain, and halt inf lammation, says Seth Podolsky, M.D., medical director for hospital operations and emergency medicine physician at the Cleveland Clinic. (You can repeat this process as needed—or substitute ice wrapped in a towel—for the next 24 to 48 hours.) Next, apply an antibiotic ointment like bacitracin to soothe the burn and help skin cells regenerate, say Dr. Carius. You can give your child ibuprofen or acetaminophen, too, if you feel he’s still in pain. But if a blister forms, let it be: That bubble is a barrier that helps prevent infection. Once the blister pops on its own, apply an antibiotic ointment and a clean bandage.
Don't: Use vitamin E or butter—both of these can be irritating. And never place ice directly on a burn; doing so can cause tissue damage.
When to Get Help: If your child’s skin looks very angry, splotchy, wet, or waxy, or if he can’t move it, he may have a severe burn that requires prompt medical attention. You should also head straight to the E.R. or your doctor’s office if he has any type of chemical burn (say, he got bleach or drain cleaner on his skin); if a burn is the size of his palm or larger; if it’s on his face, ears, hands, genitals, or feet; or if it extends around his wrist or the circumference of another extremity, like his arm or leg.
How to Treat a Burn
The Signs: Your child might suddenly start jerking or stiffening his arms or legs and not respond to you. The symptoms can also be more subtle. For example, he may stare or look dazed for several seconds, or his eyes may roll up.
What to Do Immediately: Place him on his side. Try to note the time; most seizures last between two and five minutes. Don’t put anything in his mouth; you don’t need to worry about his biting his tongue. If he’s never had a seizure before, call 911. If he has a seizure disorder, call 911 if he’s having trouble breathing; if he turns blue; if the seizure lasts for more than five minutes; or if, when the seizure has passed, he is in pain, extremely sleepy, unable to breathe well, or just seems different. If he has a seizure disorder and he seems okay (although sleepy) afterward, you should still call your doctor right away to ask for advice.
12. A Twisted Ankle
What to Do Immediately: Have your child sit down and elevate her injured ankle above the level of her heart with an ice pack or a bag of frozen veggies draped over it, says Dr. Carius. Over the next 48 hours, continue to apply ice to the area for 15 minutes every hour. Ibuprofen can also help reduce pain and swelling.
Don't: Apply a heating pad or let her soak her foot in a warm tub for the first 48 hours. Heat can increase swelling and pain—not what you want!
When to Get Help: If your child can’t bear weight on the injured ankle or if it looks deformed, go to the E.R. or an urgentcare center. These are signs that it may be broken or dislocated rather than just sprained (when the ligaments are severely stretched).