When to take your child to the hospital for flu and cold symptoms


December 30, 2022

Pediatric experts give advice on when it’s best to go to a walk-in clinic instead of the emergency room. Knowing when to go to the hospital for flu and cold systems may end up helping you.

‘Tis the season for colds, flu and upper respiratory illnesses, but physicians caution that going to the emergency department is not always the best remedy. We offer our advice on when to go to the hospital for flu or cold-like symptoms.

While it can be difficult to decipher symptoms, Dr. Michele Walsh, medical director of the Pediatric Emergency Department at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, offers tips on when it is best to take a child to an emergency department versus making a call or visit to the family pediatrician.

“It is always best to call your pediatrician to discuss symptoms,” Walsh said. “They should be the first line of defense because they are most familiar with the patient and will be able to direct parents to the best place to receive care.”

Walsh offers the following guidelines for parents about when to seek emergency treatment for their children. If a child is having:

  • Difficulty breathing or is in distress;
  • Concerns of dehydration;
  • Severe headache or spinal neck pain;
  • High fever that causes a change in behavior.

“We see a jump in the number of patients coming to our emergency department for flu-like symptoms this time of year,” she said. “What we find is that the majority of these visits could have been averted. Many of them don’t need to be admitted to the hospital and probably would have been best served by their pediatricians, in walk-in clinics or urgent-care facilities. We want to provide optimal care for the families in our community, but sometimes emergency departments shouldn’t be considered the first stop.”

Monroe Carell pediatric infectious diseases specialist Dr. Buddy Creech, also director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Research Program, said, “We have a great network of pediatricians, walk-in clinics, and urgent care facilities that complement our work in the emergency department. Sometimes, a phone call with the pediatrician or a quick visit in a walk-in clinic is all that is needed to figure out the next steps in a child’s care. By creating this network of places to receive care, we can make sure that children with emergency health needs can receive care quickly and effectively in our emergency department.”

Over the past few weeks, Monroe Carell staff have treated the flu, as well as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a primary cause of lower respiratory tract infections among young children.

“This year’s flu season has come early,” Creech said. “Now is the time to make sure everyone in the family is vaccinated so that we can protect ourselves, each other and those around us who can’t be vaccinated because of cancer or other problems with their immune systems.”

To cut down on the spread of infectious illnesses, Monroe Carell experts advise people to:

Need care after hours?

Vanderbilt’s Children’s After-Hours Clinics offer the convenience of a walk-in clinic with care provided by a board-certified pediatrician from Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital. No appointment is necessary, but it’s recommended you call your pediatrician first.

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