My Child Has a Cold, Should I take Her the ER, Urgent Care or the Pediatrician?

Written by Kristen Stuppy MD

As cold and flu season approaches, I have been thinking about how our kids are managed when they become sick. Not only what we do to treat symptoms, but how, when, and where patients get medical advice and care.

We are a busy society. We want things done now. Quickly. Cheaply. Correctly. Resolution so we can get back to life.

Illness doesn’t work that way. Most childhood illnesses are viruses and they take a few weeks to resolve. There’s no magic medicine that will make it better.

Please don’t ask for an antibiotic to prevent the runny nose from developing into a cough or ear infection.

Don’t ask for an antibiotic because your child has had a fever for 3 days and you need to go back to work.

Don’t ask for an antibiotic because your teen has a big test or tournament coming up and has an awful cough.

Antibiotics simply don’t work for viruses. They also carry risks, which are not worth taking when the antibiotic isn’t needed in the first place.

Urgent Cares are not always the best choice

Many parents in this community have grown accustomed to using after hour urgent cares because they are convenient.

Convenient isn’t always the best choice. Many times kids go to an urgent care after hours for issues that could wait and be managed during normal business hours. I know some of this is due to parents trying to avoid missing work or kids missing school, but is this needed? Can it hurt?

Some kids will get unnecessary tests, xrays, and treatments at urgent cares that don’t have a reliable means of follow up. They attempt to decrease risk often by erring with over treating. Our office does have the ability to follow up with you in the near future, so we don’t have to over treat.

Urgent cares don’t have a child’s history available.

They might choose an inappropriate antibiotic due to allergy or recent use (making that antibiotic more likely less effective). They might not recognize if your child doesn’t have certain immunizations or if they do have a chronic condition, therefore leaving your child open to illnesses not expected at their age.

We know that parents can and should tell all providers these things, but our own new patient information sheets are often erroneous when compared to the transferred records from the previous physician… parents don’t think about the wheezing history or the surgery 5 years ago every visit. It is so important to have old records!

To treat or not to treat?

There is some evidence that treating things too soon does not allow our bodies to make immunity against the germ. A great example of this is Strep throat. Years ago we would go to a doctor when our sore throat didn’t get better after a few days. They would swab our throat and send the swab for culture, which took 2 days. We would treat only after that culture was positive. That delay in treatment allowed our bodies to recognize the Strep and begin making antibodies against it.

Now kids are brought in the day they have symptoms, and if the rapid test is positive, they immediately start antibiotics. The benefit? They are less likely to spread Strep to others and they can return to school 24 hrs after starting the antibiotic. The negative? They might be more susceptible to recurrent illness with Strep, so in the end are potentially sick more often and end up missing more school.

Receiving care at multiple locations

Receiving care at multiple locations makes it difficult for the medical home to keep track of how often your child is sick. Is it time for further evaluation of immune issues? Is it time to consider ear tubes or a tonsillectomy? If we don’t have proper documentation, these issues might have a delay of recognition.

Urgent cares and ERs are not always designed for kids.

I’m not talking about cute pictures or smaller exam tables. I’m talking about the experience of the provider. If they are trained mostly to treat adults, they might be less comfortable with kids. They often order more tests, xrays, and inappropriate treatments due to their inexperience.

This increases cost as well as risk to your child. We have been fortunate to have many urgent cares available after hours that are designed specifically for kids, which does help. But this is sometimes for convenience, not for the best medical care.

What About Cost?

As previously mentioned, cost is a factor. I hate to bring money into the equation when it comes to the health of your child, but it is important. Healthcare spending is spiraling out of control. Urgent cares and ERs charge more. This cost is increasingly being passed on to consumers.

Your co pay is probably higher outside the medical home. The percentage of the visit you must pay is often higher. If you pay out of pocket until your deductible is met, this can be a substantial difference in cost. (Not to mention they tend to order more tests and treatments, each with additional costs.)

So what kinds of issues are appropriate for various types of visits?

(note: I can’t list every medical problem, parental decisions must be made for individual situations)

After hours urgent care or ER:
  • Difficulty breathing (not just noisy congestion or cough)
  • Dehydration
  • Injury
  • Pain that is not controlled with over the counter medicines
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Fever >100.4 rectally if under 3 months of age
Your Primary Care Pediatrician Visit:
  • Fever
  • Ear ache
  • Fussiness
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhea
  • Any new illness
Issues better addressed with an Appointment in the Medical Home:
  • Follow up of any issue (ear infection, asthma, constipation) unless suddenly worse, then see above
  • Chronic (long term) concerns (growth, constipation, acne, headaches)
  • Behavioral issues
  • Well visits and sports physicals (insurance counts these as the same, and limits to once/year)
  • Immunizations – ideally done at medical home so records remain complete

If your child gets a vaccine at any other location, please send us documentation (including the date, brand, lot number, and place administered) so we can keep the records complete.

Remember your pediatrician’s website might offer trusted answers to questions and many treatments to try at home for various illnesses and conditions! Be careful of surfing for answers though… the internet is full of bad advice! Go only to trusted sources (such as your doctor’s website or HealthyChildren.org).

Dr. Stuppy is a practicing pediatrician in Kansas. I feels privileged to be able to help families keep their children healthy and she loves watching entire families grow!  Dr Stuppy is active on Facebook and puts a more personal touch to pediatric topics on her blog.  

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8 thoughts on “My Child Has a Cold, Should I take Her the ER, Urgent Care or the Pediatrician?

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