Sniffles or Flu? When to Take a Baby to the Emergency Room

For new parents, it can be difficult to determine whether their baby needs medical attention. Learn more here about when to take a baby to the emergency room.


Few things can stress a parent out more than when their baby gets sick. 4.5 million American children age five and under are admitted to hospitals each year because of infections such as the flu.

But how do you know if your baby has something serious that requires emergency care, or if it's just a mild cold that will go away with at-home care? Here's everything you need to know about when to take baby to the emergency room.

First, it's important to realize that just because your baby has caught a cold or the flu doesn't mean they need to be taken to the emergency room. It's recommended that you consult with your pediatrician first if your child is under two years old and gets sick. They can recommend at-home treatment and will have you visit them if any of your baby's symptoms are serious.

Most of the time, a cold or flu virus just needs time to work its way through the body especially as there's no known cure for either infection. Some pediatricians may prescribe a baby the antiviral drug Tamiflu if they just started showing flu symptoms. The FDA has approved Tamiflu for babies under one year old.

Generally, a visit to the ER should only be done when symptoms are serious and your pediatrician is not available, or they recommend you take your child to the ER. If your child is showing any of the following symptoms, you should definitely call their doctor or take them to the ER if the doctor is unavailable:

  • A rectal temperature reading higher than 100.4 F in an infant less than two months old, or a fever that lasts longer than three days. This can signal a more serious infection such as strep throat that should be treated with antibiotics.
  • Vomiting that is green, doesn't stop, or doesn't dissipate over time. This can be a dangerous situation as a baby can get dehydrated quickly and may need fluids. Give your child an ounce of Pedialyte every 30 to 60 minutes and contact the doctor.
  • Nonstop crying, especially when you try to pick up the baby and move their neck. (Crying can also be a sign of an overtired baby.)
  • Breathing difficulties. Trouble breathing is normal when your nose is stuffed up with a cold. What you want to look out for in infants is wheezing or if they make a high-pitched noise while breathing. They may have whooping cough or another serious illness that requires treatment.
  • If the baby is extremely lethargic or showing limpness, this is also a medical emergency. So is skin that turns bluish.

It's also good to know the difference between cold and flu symptoms, so that you know the right at-home care to give.

The Difference Between a Cold and the Flu

One of the most common reasons a parent will take a baby to the hospital is because they have symptoms that could signal a cold or the flu. While both infections can be very uncomfortable for your little one, it's important to know the difference so that you don't make an unnecessary ER visit for something that could have been treated at home or by your pediatrician.

Cold Symptoms

A cold tends to settle in the nose and head and can last for up to a week. Most symptoms tend to run their course after four or five days. Here are the classic symptoms of a cold in infants:

  • Sneezing
  • Runny or stuffy nose (or it alternates between the two)
  • Mild fever
  • Mild cough
  • Red or watery eyes

Flu Symptoms

If you've had the flu, then you know that it can be a more intense and unpleasant sickness than having a cold. The flu usually comes on very fast and is accompanied by a fever, chills, and body aches and soreness. It can then cause phlegm to build-up in the chest, and coughing that lasts for weeks afterwards as the body tries to expel the substance from the lungs.

Here's a list of the most common flu symptoms in babies:

  • A high fever that comes on suddenly and lasts for two to three days
  • A sore throat and difficulty or pain when swallowing (although your baby will not be able to communicate this to you)
  • Uncontrollable shaking due to body chills
  • Aches and soreness
  • A cough that may develop right away or a few days after the onset of symptoms
  • A build-up of phlegm in the chest which may be green

Unlike a cold, flu symptoms can linger in the body for weeks afterwards. If your child has had the flu but has a cough that doesn't go away, contact your pediatrician. If they're not available, take them to urgent care in the Bronx or the city closest to you.

Treating the Cold and Flu in Infants

Both the cold and flu can be treated at home with over-the-counter children's medicine formulated for infants. Look for one that includes a pain medicine as this can ease aches and a sore throat. Since babies can't blow their own noses, you'll also need to help your child out by using a bulb syringe to remove mucus.

A warm bath can also make a sick infant feel better. If they're running a fever, you'll want to dress them in lighter clothing and keep their nursery on the slightly cooler side to help them feel more comfortable.

Not Every Sickness Requires an ER Visit

So, how do you know when to take baby to the emergency room? The best advice when your baby shows signs of an illness is to contact your pediatrician for advice first. This can help you and your child avoid a long waiting time and them receiving tests that may be unnecessary.

Here at HiFiveBaby, we love giving moms and dads parenting advice that can help them save time and form strong bonds with their children. For more content on raising healthy children, check out our latest health and safety posts.
Nancy Shaw

Hi. My name is Nancy. I am a nurse by profession and a writer by passion and ever since I became a mother, I’ve become very active in sharing useful and important information about basically anything under the sun and a full-time mother to a 21-month old boy. Read more about me here.

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