December 12, 2019

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


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, Michele Walsh, MD, assistant professor of Pediatrics and medical director of the Pediatric Emergency Department at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, offers tips on when it is best to bring 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 are seeing a jump in the number of patients coming to our emergency department for flu-like symptoms,” she said. “What we are finding 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.”

In the past few weeks, there has been a 30% increase in emergency department patient volumes at Children’s Hospital compared to the same period in 2018.

“We have a great network of pediatricians, walk-in clinics, and urgent care facilities that complement our work in the emergency department,” said Buddy Creech, MD, MPH, director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Research Program and associate professor of Pediatric Infectious Diseases. “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, Children’s Hospital staff have treated both influenza A and influenza B, 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, and it’s interesting that influenza B (a springtime virus) is our most common strain,” 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 Vanderbilt doctors advise people to:

  • Wash hands frequently;
  • Cover mouth when coughing and sneezing;
  • Wear a mask when showing signs of illness;
  • Stay home when sick.

When pediatricians’ offices are closed, Children’s Hospital can also see children at five After-Hours clinics in Hendersonville, Mt. Juliet, Brentwood, Smyrna, Spring Hill and an Urgent Care location in Murfreesboro.

Vanderbilt’s Children’s After-Hours Clinics offer the convenience of a walk-in clinic with care provided by a board-certified pediatrician from Children’s Hospital. No appointment is necessary, but we recommend calling your pediatrician first. Learn more about services and find locations for Children’s Hospital After-Hours Clinic here.

If you do get sick, use our online flu tool to decide whether self-care at home or a visit to your healthcare provider is in order.