When to Call 911: 7 Emergencies in Children

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on March 15, 2022

It's every parent's nightmare: a medical emergency involving your child. Whether it's difficulty breathing or a fall at the park, knowing when to call 911 can help you cope quickly and efficiently with childhood emergencies and stay calm under pressure.

Here are some guidelines for 7 of the most common medical emergencies in children:

1. Respiratory Distress

Respiratory distress refers to difficulty breathing and taking in enough oxygen. Causes may include choking, asthma, an infection, or pneumonia. The signs of respiratory distress are coughing, wheezing, labored breathing (especially flaring of the nose and use of chest and neck muscles to aid breathing), grunting, inability to talk, or turning blue.

When to Call 911:

  • The rate of breathing is greater than 50 to 60 breaths per minute.
  • The child is turning blue around the mouth.
  • The condition is worsening instead of improving.

If these signs are present, don't try to put your child in a car -- call an ambulance. The paramedics can deliver oxygen and get your child safely to the hospital.

2. Broken Bones

Broken bones are common childhood emergencies. While these injuries are usually not life-threatening, the child should be taken to a hospital or urgent care center for evaluation. Generally speaking, parents can drive kids with broken bones to the hospital themselves.

When to Call 911:

  • The break is so severe that you can't control the pain.
  • The bone is sticking out of the skin.
  • The accident involves trauma to the head or neck.
  • The accident has caused a state of altered consciousness.

3. Vomiting and/or Diarrhea

Vomiting and/or diarrhea can require emergency care if a child becomes dehydrated. If your child can't keep anything down or has severe diarrhea, watch for signs of dehydration such as sunken eyes, dry mucus membranes, and abnormally low amounts of urine. If any of these appear your child should be evaluated by the doctor

When to Call 911:

4. Febrile Seizures

In infants and toddlers, a rapid rise in temperature can cause a febrile seizure. Most seizures associated with fever end quickly and are not necessarily emergencies. However, any child who is having new seizures should be seen by a doctor as soon as possible. After a doctor has evaluated your child for seizures, any recurrent seizures should be reported by phone to the doctor to make sure nothing more serious is happening that would require further evaluation.

When to Call 911:

  • The seizure doesn't stop after three to five minutes.
  • The child has labored breathing or is turning blue.
  • Your child's normal mental state does not return after the seizure.

5. Falls

Falling from a significant height can injure the head, spine, or internal organs. If you suspect a head injury, talk to your child and make sure they answer questions appropriately.

When to Call 911:

  • The child vomits more than once.
  • They lose consciousness.
  • The child complains of numbness or tingling.
  • You suspect internal injuries.
  • You suspect an injury to the neck or spine.

In the case of a potential injury to the neck or spine, do not attempt to move your child. The paramedics will immobilize the spine before taking your child to the hospital.

6. Cuts/Bleeding

If your child is bleeding, apply pressure to the wound and assess the extent of the damage. Children who need stitches can usually be taken to the hospital or urgent care center by car.

When to Call 911:

  • There is a known bleeding disorder.
  • You're unable to stop the bleeding.

7. Possible Poisoning

It's a frightening scenario -- your child has gotten into the medicine cabinet or your supply of household cleaners. The first thing to do is call Poison Control: 1-800-222-1222. The poison center experts can assess a situation and dispense advice quickly.

When to Call 911:

  • The child is unresponsive.
  • Poison Control advises it.



Show Sources


Kendall Stanford, MD, associate professor of pediatrics in pediatric emergency medicine at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and Arkansas Children's Hospital in Little Rock. 

Ben Hoffman, MD, FAAP, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

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