When your child becomes unwell, it can be scary, especially when they are very young and cannot tell you what they are feeling.
Thankfully, most illnesses in children are not serious and they recover quickly with simple measures you can take at home.
Sometimes, it can be hard to pinpoint what is going on – especially in babies – when there might not be any obvious clues.
Trust your instincts. You know your child better than anyone else. If you think they need more than self-care at home, you can contact your GP or go to the nearest Emergency Department.
The guidance below can help you decide when you should get help. It is based on how your child looks (appearance) and acts (behaviour) together with other features that may indicate a serious problem.
If you spot any of the red symptoms, you should go immediately to the nearest Emergency Department or call 999.
Check through the amber symptoms. If you can identify something that is different (like tummy pain or your child feels hot) follow the advice in that section.
If your child does not have any of the red or amber features, you have some time as it is unlikely to be an emergency. You can support your child at home at this time. Make sure they are getting plenty of fluids and treat any fever or pain with paracetamol. Your local pharmacy or GP can give you further advice.
Check if your child has any red symptoms:
- Pale, mottled or has abnormally cold hands or feet.
- Collapsed / unresponsive / unconscious or difficult to wake / lethargic or confused.
- No obvious pulse or heartbeat.
- A severe allergic reaction.
- Blue around the lips.
- Develops a rash that does not disappear with pressure (the ‘Glass Test‘).
- Sleepiness (can be woken but falls asleep immediately).
- Very agitated and restless and you cannot settle them with cuddles, toys, TV or food.
- Seizure / jerking movements / fit.
- Drowsy (sleepy) or very agitated even when they do not have a fever.
- Not breathing.
- Sucking in and out between their ribs.
- Using their neck muscles when breathing.
- Flaring nostrils.
- Extremely fast breathing.
- Noisy breathing such as grunting or stridor – see examples of noisy breathing and a child struggling to breathe.
- Too breathless to talk or feed.
- Has long pauses in their breathing (more than 10 seconds).
- Bleeding from an injury that doesn’t stop after 10 minutes of pressure.
- If your child has a fit or convulsion, you should call 999 or bring them to the nearest Emergency Department.
- Has testicular pain, especially in teenage boys.
Actions to take if your child has any red symptoms
- Your child may require emergency treatment.
- You should call 999 or take them to your NEAREST Emergency Department where they can be assessed.
If there are no red symptoms, check if your child has any amber symptoms:
- Dizziness / feeling faint.
- Severe constant tummy pain.
- Baby wont feed / take a bottle.
- Baby’s nappy has been dry for 12 hours.
- Your child feels abnormally cold to touch.
- Burn on the skin or elsewhere.
- Possible broken bone – an injury causing reduced movement of arms or legs or inability to walk.
- Head injury causing drowsiness or persistent crying.
- Swallowed object (especially magnets or batteries).
- Temperature higher than 38oC in a baby younger than three months old – how to take your child’s temperature.
- Your child has special healthcare needs and you have a plan that tells you to go to the Emergency Department.
- Suicidal thoughts or self-harming – if your child is expressing suicidal thoughts or is harming themselves, call Lifeline free on 0808 808 8000 or Samaritans free on 116 123.
- If you cannot keep your child safe in this moment, go to the nearest Emergency Department.
Call the PSNI if there is immediate danger to your child, yourself or others.
Options if your child has any amber symptoms
Your child does not need to be taken to the Emergency Department immediately, but you should seek medical advice today.
- ring your GP surgery during their usual opening hours
- contact the out of hours GP if the surgery is closed
If symptoms continue for four hours or more and you have not been able to speak to your GP or the out of hours GP, consider going to your nearest Emergency Department.
If your child develops any of the red symptoms above, go to your nearest Emergency Department.
If no red or amber symptoms are present:
- your child does not seem to have any symptoms of serious illness or injury
- you can get general advice on the NI Direct website or from your local pharmacy
If your child develops any of the red or amber symptoms above, follow the advice in these sections.
How you can help manage your child’s illness at home
Contact your GP or pharmacist
- GPs are continuing to care for patients throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.
- All GPs will have plans for assessing unwell children. Your GP will decide if your child should have a telephone, video or face-to-face appointment.
- You can also visit your community pharmacist for advice.
- You can do lots of things online, like ordering repeat prescriptions. If you don’t have online services but would like to use them, visit your GP practice website for details on how to set this up.
- Use the symptom checker on this website.
- Find out how the Children’s Emergency Department works.
- If it is non-urgent, speak to your local pharmacist or health visitor.
- Alternatively, you can contact your GP practice and a qualified member of the clinical team will check whether your child needs to be seen urgently. Out of hours GP details are available here.
- You should only call 999 or go your nearest Emergency Department in critical or life-threatening situations.
- See our section: How does the Children’s Emergency Department Work?