Getting hurt is a part of childhood, but it’s essential to prevent serious injuries in children. Parents can take several steps—in the home, on the playground and in the car—to try to avoid a trip to the emergency room.
But if your child gets seriously hurt, it’s crucial to know when a trip to the ER is necessary to get the care needed.
According to Dan Taylor, medical director of St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children outpatient clinic and associate professor of pediatrics for Drexel College of Medicine in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the most common injuries in children occur because of accidents such as falls or bike crashes.
“Those are typically either broken bones or cuts, which we call lacerations or sprains,” he says. Parents need to watch for certain signs after an accident that signal they should take their child to the emergency room.
“If it’s a cut or a laceration—not just a scrape—those typically have to go to an ER or an urgent care center,” Taylor says. “If it’s a small laceration that might need a few stitches, or a staple or two, most urgent care centers can do that, and all emergency rooms can do that. If it’s a larger cut or laceration, definitely an emergency room.”
If a child falls on an outstretched arm and is experiencing swelling, an ER professional needs to evaluate this injury.
“Any type of injury on an outstretched arm where a kid is in a lot of pain and they’re swelling in the elbow especially needs to be evaluated pretty quickly or else there can be nerve damage,” Taylor says. “Any kind of injury where there is pain and swelling in a joint or extremity or ribs should be evaluated in an ER to make sure there’s no fracture.”
Motor vehicle accidents
More serious injuries can occur from motor vehicle accidents, according to Marjorie Galler, an emergency department pediatrician at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital and assistant professor of clinical pediatrics and emergency medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine.
“While most of the injuries I see are not life-threatening, certainly the ones related to motor vehicle accidents can be,” she says.
Prevention is key in avoiding life-threatening injuries from car crashes.
“You want to have a really good infant car seat. You want to make sure people are transitioning out of the infant car seat into an appropriate toddler preschool-age car seat when they hit that weight limit,” Galler says. Additionally, she notes that “the American Academy of Pediatrics is pushing for people to keep children as rear-facing for as long as possible.”
In the home
During the winter, injuries in the home are more common since families spend more time inside. The American Academy of Pediatrics offers a home safety checklist that Taylor recommends families review.
“It includes things like stair gates and having cribs that have sides that are the right height so kids can’t crawl out of cribs and fall down,” he says. “Knowing the development milestones of kids is really important.”
Scalding burns are common for children during the winter.
“Whether that’s pulling down mom or dad’s coffee from the table, or going to grandma or grandpa’s house and having the kettle on (the stove), scalding burns are deep, and they’re serious,” Galler says. “You want to be really cautious about placement of things, especially when you have family visiting.”
Families should also be careful if they light fires in the fireplace or in outdoor fire pits. “Make sure you’re thinking about having a safe fire grate and constant supervision,” she says.
Always a balance
While parents should allow their kids freedom to play, they also need to be vigilant about the potential for serious injury.
“That delicate balance is something that all parents have to struggle with a little bit,” Taylor says. “Most kids are resilient and can bounce back from injuries, but it’s important to ensure that there’s no chance for them to have a major life-threatening injury.”
But when serious injuries occur, emergency room pediatricians are available to address them. “You can always remember we’re here 24/7,” Galler says. “Every emergency department is prepared to care for your child while in need.”