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Deciding when to come to Emergency

Download a printable version of the information on this page.

It’s not always easy to decide if your child really needs to come to the Emergency Department

We understand that you are worried when your child is sick or injured and may decide to come to the Emergency Department. Many visits to the Emergency Department are due to minor illnesses that can be easily managed in a doctor’s office or clinic. Family doctors know their patients best, and have the skill and resources to manage most problems. Talk to your family doctor first. Image  of 10 people, 4 of which are in a circle


4 out of 10 visits to the Emergency Department are for minor illnesses that your doctor or clinic can manage.


We need to keep the Emergency Department for emergencies

The most seriously ill or injured patients receive care first and are the reason that we have Emergency Departments. Patients with less serious problems will wait longer.

Our triage nurses assess how serious the problem is, and decide how quickly patients need to be seen by the doctor. 

For example:

  • Life Threatening – Patients need help right away. Physicians and nurses will drop what they are doing to care for these patients.
  • Emergency – Patients need assessment and care within 30-60 minutes.
  • Urgent – Most patients need emergency care that day.
  • Less Urgent – Most patients can be cared for by a family doctor or clinic. Some injuries are best managed in the Emergency Department.

Does my child need emergency care?

Here are some examples of when children need emergency care, and when they do not.


Bring your child or teen to the emergency department for:

Not an emergency

Bring your child or teen to your family doctor or a walk-in clinic for:

Fever – less than 3 months old; immune system problems or complex chronic health problems; very sleepy or difficult to wake.

Fever – healthy and vaccinated babies and children who appear generally well and playful when the fever is down with ibuprofen (Advil®, Motrin®) or acetaminophen (Tylenol®,Tempra®).

Breathing Problems – respiratory distress (working hard to breathe; breathing faster than normal); pale skin, whitish or blue lips; asthma or wheezing not responding to usual puffers; or chest pain.

Breathing Problems – nasal congestion and cough, even if it interrupts sleep; symptoms of the ‘common cold’; mild asthma or wheezing that responds to usual puffers.

Vomiting or Diarrhea – less than 3 months old; repeated vomiting and unable to keep liquids down (any age, if it lasts 8 hours or more); vomiting or diarrhea containing large amounts of blood; dehydration with dry mouth or no urine more than 8 hours.

Vomiting or Diarrhea – vomiting or diarrhea less than 3-4 times a day; ongoing diarrhea after ‘stomach flu’ (this can last for up to 2 weeks). 

Injuries – head injury with loss of consciousness (passing out) or confusion or repeated vomiting; cuts that may need stitches; burns that blister and are larger than a Loonie; injury to arm or leg causing large swelling or inability to use the limb; eye injuries; or injury causing chest or stomach pain.

Injuries – minor head injuries with no loss of consciousness, no confusion and no vomiting; scrapes and bruises where the injured part can still be used; sun burn.

Rashes – rash with fever that looks like tiny or expanding bruises.

Rashes – recurring rashes or skin problems; rashes with cough and cold symptoms if the child looks well; mild hives that respond to antihistamines (Benadryl®) without difficulty breathing or throat/ tongue swelling.

Alternatives to Emergency:

  1. Call your family doctor or pediatrician. Even if the office is closed, listen to the voice message for instructions and details about accessing care outside of office hours. Many family doctors have same-day, next day or walk-in hours during evenings and weekends. They may also offer 24/7 telephone advice to help you manage until they can see you.
  2. Visit a walk-in clinic. In Ontario, visit iamsick or 211 Ontario and use the search feature. Or call 211 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week) for information about walk-in clinics close to you. Many will accept Québec patients. In Gatineau, call or visit the Mini-Urgence clinic, 500, l’Hôpital, local 102. 819-966-6388

Looking for a family doctor?

In Ontario: Health Care Connect is a program that connects patients with primary care providers. Patients may register by phone or online. You will then be linked with a Nurse Care Connector who will help you find a doctor.

  1. Call 1-800-445-1822 (Monday to Friday, 9:00am to 5:00pm). You will speak to a representative who will ask you a few questions about your location and specific needs.
  2. On line at Health Care Connect.

In Quebec: Please call your local CLSC, Info-Santé (811) or register online: CSSS Gatineau. You may also contact the Collège des médicins du Québec at 1-888-633-3246 

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