It’s every parent’s nightmare: your child is bleeding, or choking, or unconscious, and you don’t know what to do. Fortunately, there are ways that you can learn what to do in a health emergency so that you’re prepared for the worst.
- Get organized. First and most importantly, keep a set of emergency numbers close to the telephone, or programmed in your phone; this should include the nearest doctor’s office, the emergency services numbers, your child’s regular doctor, a poison control center, and a “nurse hotline” if there is one in your area. Teach your older children how to call these numbers and other emergency services like 9-1-1 so that you can make sure help is on the way while you’re focusing on the child in need.
- Get trained. Next, to get the skills and confidence you need to handle a crisis, look for ways to get trained. One good way to get these skills and to get information on a variety of health emergencies is to contact your local Red Cross chapter (http://www.redcross.org/take-a-class) to see what they offer. You can learn CPR, find out about health hazards in your local area, and get general first-aid training through the Red Cross.
- Get informed. Take every opportunity you can to learn more about childhood diseases, common injuries, accident prevention, and emergency situations like accidental poisoning. A good place to start is the comprehensive on-line resource created by the American College of Emergency Physicians, their “ER 101” guide. (http://www.emergencycareforyou.org/VitalCareMagazine/ER101)
- Get connected. Take advantage of modern technology to put emergency advice at your fingertips. Here are three apps you can download so that you’ve got the information you need no matter where you are:
- General first aid advice from the Red Cross (http://www.redcross.org/mobile-apps/first-aid-app)
- CPR techniques from the American Heart Association (http://jive.me/apps/firstaid/)
- Health and safety tips for adults, children, and pets from the Health & Safety Institute (https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.gotoaidlite&hl=en)
Below we’ve collected some advice on how to handle several common health emergencies that families encounter frequently. This information is just an overview of the health issues, and should not be entirely relied on in an emergency. This is not a medical site, and this information is not being provided by a medical professional. We encourage you to read the information below to get educated on common health emergencies, but you should immediately contact your doctor or emergency services if your child is experiencing one of these potentially life-threatening problems.
Allergies can be caused by something in the environment (pet hair, pollen), something a child has eaten (peanuts, shellfish), or by something a child comes in contact with (poison ivy, nettles). When a child has eaten something they’re allergic to, it can cause a reaction called anaphylaxis. When this happens, the child will often have difficulty breathing. They might complain that their throat feels like it is swollen shut. Milder allergic reactions include runny noses, a rash on the skin, itching eyes, or coughing. An allergic reaction can also cause a child’s heartbeat to speed up, and if it’s something they’ve eaten, they may complain of feeling sick or having a stomach ache.
Young children are at risk from allergies that haven’t been diagnosed, especially when they start eating solid food. One common allergy in kids is to peanuts or to nuts like almonds (peanuts are not technically a nut). Since peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are common school lunches, whether made at home or served in a cafeteria, you’ll need to be careful the first time you give your child peanut butter to eat.
If you have a family history of food allergies to peanuts, milk or dairy products, eggs, or another food, you can check with your doctor and your insurance company to see if you can get your child tested for these allergies. The testing is usually done either by a skin patch test or a blood test.
If you suspect that your child is having a severe allergic reaction it’s important to get them to the hospital as soon as possible, because anaphylaxis can quickly turn fatal if the child’s throat gets so swollen that they can no longer breath. Once such an allergy is diagnosed, your doctor may provide you with a portable epinephrine injector to keep on hand in case the child accidentally comes in contact with the food again.
Another health problem that involves breathing difficulties is asthma. This is something that even young children can get, and can be caused by an allergy to pet hair or to cigarette smoke. If your child is allergic to pet hair, you may not be able to have pets in the house, no matter how many times you clean and vacuum. Fortunately, many children outgrow this problem as they get older.
Asthma attacks are frightening to both the child and the parent, and when a child is frightened it often makes it even harder for them to breath. Keep talking to your child and help them stay calm. If this is the first time they’ve had an asthma attack, call the ambulance; untreated asthma attacks may not go away, and your child could stop breathing. Once a doctor has diagnosed your child with asthma, you’ll be given an inhaler to use to help with any other attacks. Older children can learn to use inhalers on their own.
Accidents happen, and sometimes a child will break a bone in their foot, leg, hand, or arm. In the worst case, the break will be bad enough that the bone will poke through the skin. If this happens, call the ambulance right away. If you think your child has broken a bone in their leg or arm, get them to keep still and do your best to immobilize that limb by propping it up with blankets or towels. If it’s a simple break, and you can keep the child to hold still while you get them in and out of the car, you should be able to take them to the doctor or emergency room yourself. However, if you have any doubt about how serious the break is, call the ambulance instead. In either case, don’t give your child anything to eat or drink, just in case they need to have surgery to repair the bone.
A child can be burned when they touch something hot, or if they accidentally come in contact with boiling or very hot water. For burns that just cause the skin to get red, you can run cool running water over the site to reduce the pain and swelling. However, if there is any sign that this is a first- or second-degree burn, where the skin blisters, you should take your child to the doctor right away so that the area does not get infected or leave a scar. If the child has been burned over a larger area (for example, if they accidentally pull a pan of boiling water over themselves) then they may go into shock. Cool the area of the burn down, but otherwise keep the child warm, and call the ambulance immediately.
If your child get something stuck in their throat, ask them to try and cough it out. If this doesn’t help, have them bend over while you use the flat of your hand to hit them a few times between their shoulder blades. If they are still choking, it’s time for the Heimlich maneuver: stand behind the child, wrap your arms around the child, close your hand into a fist, and position it above their navel. Wrap your other hand around your fist and pull your hand sharply back and up a few times. This should force air out of their lungs, helping to propel the object out of their throat. However, if you’re not familiar with this technique, you should get training. It is a good idea to call the ambulance as soon as you think that the child will not be able to cough out whatever is blocking their throat.
Use clean running water or alcohol-free treated sterile wipes to clean off smaller cuts and scrapes, then pat the area dry and cover with gauze or a bandage, depending on the size of the cut. If the bleeding does not stop within a short period of time, you should take the child to the doctor, because it may be deep enough to require sutures or emergency care. After the cut is treated, keep an eye on the area as it heals. Watch out for any sign that the area has been infected, such as pain, pus, redness, or swelling.
If you don’t know what your child has eaten or swallowed, ask them to show you the bottle or container, but also call emergency services right away. If your child vomits, clean it up but put it in a plastic container – the doctors will be able to test for the poison, if you don’t know what it was. If your child has shown you the bottles or containers, keep them handy for the doctor’s information.\
It’s a good idea to keep a first-aid kit in the house, and one in the car as well. If your children are old enough, you can teach them about what’s in the first-aid kit and how to use it. That way they’ll be able to help you in an emergency. Be sure the first-aid kit is in a place that the older children can reach, but well out of reach of young children and babies.
You can usually find basic first-aid kits at the local pharmacy or drugstore, but you can also buy a waterproof container and stock it with your own supplies. Here are some of the basics for a standard first-aid kit:
- aloe vera gel for burns and sunburn
- antibiotic ointment
- antihistamines (allergy medication)
- bandages in various sizes (adhesive and rolls)
- cotton balls and cotton swabs
- soap packages
- saline solution for rinsing eyes