Serious illness


These guidelines have been produced to guide clinical decision making for the medical, nursing and allied health staff of Perth Children’s Hospital. They are not strict protocols, and they do not replace the judgement of a senior clinician. Clinical common-sense should be applied at all times. These clinical guidelines should never be relied on as a substitute for proper assessment with respect to the particular circumstances of each case and the needs of each patient. Clinicians should also consider the local skill level available and their local area policies before following any guideline. 

Read the full PCH Emergency Department disclaimer.


To guide PCH ED staff with the assessment and management of serious illness.



  • A child who presents with a life threatening condition or collapse is a relatively uncommon event but often causes anxiety and presents a major challenge to clinicians
  • A structured approach will enable a clinician to manage these emergencies
  • This structured approach initially focuses on identifying and treating immediate threats to life
  • Following this initial primary survey and resuscitation, the structured approach is again used as a secondary survey to identify other key symptoms and signs which require emergency treatment to stabilise the patient
  • Most children, however, will not present with a life threatening condition but may show signs and symptoms of serious illness
  • The use of the structured approach will identify a deteriorating condition potentially avoiding pre-arrest and arrest situations
  • There should be an experienced team leader who allocates roles and delegates tasks while maintaining situational awareness.


  • A structured, systematic approach is essential when assessing seriously ill children.
  • Early recognition and treatment of seriously ill patients may prevent deterioration and potential arrest situations.
  • Primary survey using the 'ABCDE' approach is a simple and highly effective method in resuscitation situations.


  • Cardiorespiratory arrest in children is rarely due to primary cardiac disease.
  • In children, it is most commonly due to hypoxia and respiratory failure (secondary to foreign body, bronchiolitis, asthma, pneumonia, aspiration). Circulatory failure (due to septic shock, anaphylaxis, severe dehydration, congenital heart disease) and central neurological failure (raised intracranial pressure, meningitis, seizures) may also lead to cardiorespiratory arrest.
  • Therefore, recognition of impending respiratory failure, circulatory failure or central neurological failure is paramount in preventing arrest situations in children.
  • This is the basis of paediatric early warning scores which have been introduced in various hospitals, including PCH (Paediatric Acute Recognition and Response Observation Tool (PARROT) chart and the PARROT Clinical Comments Chart (internal WA Health only)).

Recognition of the deteriorating child

  • A structured approach should identify a deteriorating child and any impending respiratory, cardiovascular or central neurological failure.
  • Concern for a seriously ill child or deteriorating child should prompt early senior ED doctor or Paediatric Critical Care review as outlined in the Early Warning Score Escalation Pathway. Consider MET call or Code Blue if indicated.


Assessfor airway patency and signs of airway obstruction

  • Stridor
  • Stertor/snoring
  • Hoarse voice
  • Neck swelling/bruising
  • Airway foreign body


  • Suction if necessary
  • Basic airway manoeuvres
  • Airway adjuncts: oro-pharyngeal or naso-pharyngeal airways
  • Endotracheal intubation
  • Surgical airway


Assess effort, efficacy and effects of breathing (adequacy of gas exchange)


  • Respiratory rate – tachypnoea/bradypnoea/apnoea
  • Nasal flaring
  • Grunt
  • Tracheal tug
  • Subcostal/intercostal recession


  • Air entry
  • Chest expansion
  • Oxygen saturations


  • Heart rate
  • Skin colour (cyanosis is a late sign)
  • Mental status


  • High flow oxygen via non rebreathing mask with reservoir bag

Support ventilation:

  • Humidified High Flow Oxygen
  • Positive End Expiratory Pressure (PEEP)
  • Bag valve mask ventilation
  • Consider intubation and positive pressure ventilation


Assess for adequate cardiovascular function and tissue perfusion. Ensure adequate circulating intravascular volume and control haemorrhaging.

  • Heart rate – tachycardia, bradycardia
  • Pulse volume
  • Central capillary return
  • Blood pressure (hypotension is a late sign)

Effects of inadequate circulation:

  • Respiratory rate and character
  • Skin appearance and temperature
  • Mental status

Signs of cardiac disease/heart failure:

  • Gallop rhythm
  • Raised JVP
  • Hepatomegaly


  • High flow oxygen
  • Intravenous or intraosseous access
  • Bolus of 0.9% saline (20ml/kg) and repeat as necessary
    • early consideration of inotropes
  • Control external bleeding



Cardiopulmonary resuscitation and advanced paediatric life support if there is no cardiac output


Hypoxia and shock can cause a decrease in conscious level. Any ABC problem should be addressed before assuming decreased LOC is a primary neurological problem.

Assess level of consciousness, pupils, posture and blood glucose level.

  • Conscious level: A V P U scale
  • Pupil size, symmetry and reactivity
  • Abnormal posturing (decorticate, decerebrate)
  • Seizure activity
  • Bedside glucometer reading


  • Response to Pain or Unresponsive – consider intubation
  • Treat raised intracranial pressure – 20% Mannitol or Sodium Chloride 3%
  • Correct hypoglycaemia
  • Treat status epilepticus


Fully expose the child and assess temperature, rashes and signs of injury

  • Check core temperature
  • Look for non blanching rashes or purpura
  • Urticaria or angioedema


  • Rewarm or cool as indicated
  • Antibiotics if suspected infection
  • Treat anaphylaxis if likely cause of illness


Secondary assessment

The primary survey is an initial assessment aimed at detecting immediate life threatening problems that can compromise basic life functions. The secondary assessment focuses on ongoing reassessment and management. It is important to perform an additional assessment with a focused history and physical examination in stable patients. The secondary survey is intended to detect less immediate threats to life and has several specific objectives:

  • Obtaining a complete history, including mechanism of injury or circumstances of the illness
  • Performing a detailed physical examination
  • Establishing a clinical diagnosis and targeted therapy
  • Early antibiotics for suspected sepsis. See Sepsis recognition and management guideline.
  • Performing appropriate laboratory investigations and imaging.

Ongoing assessment

Always reassess the patient. The purpose is to assess the effectiveness of the emergency interventions provided and identify any missed injuries or conditions. This should be performed in every patient after the detailed physical examination and after ensuring completion of critical interventions.

Once stabilised, patients should have the following monitored:

  • ECG monitoring
  • pulse rate
  • respiratory rate
  • oxygen saturations
  • blood pressure
  • temperature.

Consider monitoring of:

  • endotracheal tube CO2
  • venous blood gas
  • urine output (+/- urinary catheterisation)
  • invasive BP monitoring (arterial line)
  • CVP monitoring
  • ICP monitoring.


  1. Advanced Paediatric Life Support: The Practical Approach. 5th ed Australia and New Zealand Version. Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.
  2. Textbook of Pediatric Emergency Medicine. 6th ed. Fleisher GR, Ludwig S. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2010.
  3. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics: 20th Edition Robert M. Kliegman, Bonita M.D. Stanton, Joseph St. Geme, Nina F Schor Publisher: Elsevier
  4. Textbook of Paediatric Emergency Medicine 2nd Edition Cameron Elesevier 2012

Endorsed by: Executive Director, Medical Services  Date:  Oct 2021

 Review date:   Oct 2022

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