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When to call 999: Seven emergencies involving children

It is important to know what to do in the event of a medical emergency involving your child.

Knowing when to call 999, seek medical advice or go to A&E, is vital for emergencies such as breathing difficulties or a serious fall in the park.

Always try to stay calm under pressure.

You could consider taking a first aid course run by St John Ambulance, The British Red Cross or the NHS.

The NHS says you should always call an ambulance if a child:

  • Stops breathing
  • Is struggling for breath, sometimes with 'sucking in' under the ribs
  • Is unconscious or unaware of what's going on around them
  • Won’t wake up
  • Has a fit for the first time, even if they seem to recover from it later

Take your child straight to A&E yourself if they have:

  • A fever and are lethargic despite being given appropriate dose of paracetamol or ibuprofen
  • Difficulty breathing - fast, panting or very wheezy
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • A cut that won't stop bleeding or is wide
  • A leg or arm injury and can’t use the limb
  • Swallowed poison or tablets

Here are some guidelines for seven of the most common medical emergencies involving 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, laboured breathing (especially flaring of the nose and use of chest and neck muscles to aid breathing), grunting or turning blue.

When to call 999:

  • 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 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 accident and emergency department (A and E) for evaluation. Generally speaking, parents can drive children with broken bones to the hospital themselves.

When to call 999:

  • 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


3. Vomiting and/or diarrhoea

Vomiting and/or diarrhoea can require emergency care if a child becomes dehydrated. If your child can’t keep anything down or has severe diarrhoea, watch for signs of dehydration such as sunken eyes, dry mucous membranes and abnormally low amounts of urine.

When to call 999:

  • The child is unresponsive
  • There is severe cramping and unrelenting abdominal pain. This could indicate appendicitis, for example


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