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How to deal with your kid's minor injuries at home

Pandemic or no, children are going to get hurt. What can parents treat at home, and when should they seek medical attention?

The coronavirus pandemic has forced most of us to stay home unless we have an "essential" reason to leave. There's an amount of risk with every outing, and this is especially true when considering whether to enter a medical setting. We don't want to expose ourselves or anyone else to infection. We also want to avoid putting extra pressure on a health-care system that's already under strain. This presents parents of injured children with a difficult question: Should we go to the doctor or emergency room, or can I deal with this at home?

"Parents have always been able to treat a whole host of injuries at home, from minor scrapes and cuts to burns and eye-splashes," says Cara Natterson, M.D., pediatrician and author of Decoding Boys: New Science Behind the Subtle Art of Raising Sons. She recommends parents start by bookmarking a couple of websites: poison Control for questions about ingestions, and Healthy Children, the American Academy of Pediatrics' parenting portal for advice on treating minor bumps and bruises. Most children's hospitals also have websites that can help you decide whether you need to be seen with a specific injury in the first place — so find your local one and bookmark it too.

And while COVID-19 has changed our lives in endless ways, it hasn't changed what parents should stock in their first aid kit. "Rubbing alcohol can be used to disinfect, and hydrogen peroxide and saline to clean minor cuts and abrasions," Dr. Uquillas says. "Bandages of different shapes and sizes can also be very useful for small cuts and abrasions. Other essentials are adhesive tape, super glue, an eye shield, cotton balls or swabs, scissors, hand sanitizer, scissors, and a thermometer.

Dr. Natterson also has eye wash, instant hot and cold packs, gloves, and some basic medications like ibuprofen, acetaminophen and diphenhydramine (Benadryl) in her own at-home first aid kit. And if you have family members with severe allergies, make sure your EpiPens are in stock and up to date; likewise, inhaler or nebulizer medications should be on hand for those with asthma.

So, back to the big question: What kinds of things can be treated easily at home?

Sprains and strains

Mild sprains and strains — when a ligament, muscle, or tendon gets injured — can be safely and effectively treated without seeing a doctor, says Carlos Uquillas, M.D., a pediatric sports medicine specialist and pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, California. A good acronym to memorize is "RICE" — rest, ice, compression, and elevation. With this initial treatment, most children and teens recover quickly from this type of injury.

But if there's prolonged, visible damage to the affected area, or pain prevents your child from using the ligament, tendon, or muscle, you should contact your doctor. "Parents should never try to treat an injury where a child cannot walk or put weight on the affected limb," Dr. Uquillas says.

Minor head injuries

While some head injuries can be managed at home, Dr. Natterson says you should definitely call your doctor if you think your child has a concussion. Signs of a concussion include headache, nausea or vomiting, dizziness or balance problems, double or blurry vision, sensitivity to noise or light, confusion, and drowsiness, per the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Cuts, scrapes, and broken bones

Dr. Natterson also recommends seeking medical advice if your child has a deep cut that you think might need stitches, or a bone injury that's severe enough to dramatically limit movement. "Things like a bone break with the bone visible through the skin, hematoma (bruise) causing so much swelling that circulation seems to be cut off, or loss of consciousness should absolutely not be treated at home," she says. "In these cases, call your doctor immediately, and if you cannot reach someone right away, then dial 911."

What if my child has coronavirus?

Taking a child into a medical setting gets a bit more complicated when a child is recovering at home from COVID-19, or is in quarantine because someone they're living with has the disease. "This is an unprecedented time in which we are trying to keep anyone who doesn't absolutely need emergency department-level care out of the ED," Dr. Natterson says. "That said, if you need to be seen, go in! There will be some injuries or ailments that absolutely require urgent care and avoiding a hospital setting could create bigger problems."

Dr. Natterson recommends alerting staff before entering the facility so that they know your child has the coronavirus infection or is in quarantine. "They will likely direct you into a specific area," she explains.

As with all things parenting, trust your gut. And if you simply aren't sure whether you can treat your child's illness or injury at home, call your doctor's office. Lockdown or not, they're still there to guide you in the right direction and help ease your concerns.

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