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Diagnostic Findings in Infants Presenting to a Pediatric Emergency Department for Lethargy or Feeding Complaints

Webb, Tara MD*; Nugent, Melodee MA; Simpson, Pippa PhD; Melzer-Lange, Marlene MD*

doi: 10.1097/PEC.0000000000000083
Original Articles

Objectives Lethargy is a common complaint among infants in the pediatric emergency department (ED), yet there is little data to guide appropriate evaluation. The objectives of the study were (1) to determine the frequency of diagnoses requiring intervention/monitoring and (2) to identify predictors of these diagnoses.

Methods A retrospective chart review of patients aged 0 to 6 months with a chief complaint of lethargy or poor feeding from January 2004 to December 2009 was performed. Patients were excluded if they had a fever, hypothermia, a chronic medical condition, or a history of trauma. Charts were reviewed by a single investigator; 10% were reviewed by a second investigator for agreement. History, examination, laboratory and radiology results, ED and inpatient diagnoses, as well as return visits within 7 days were recorded. Frequencies of diagnoses and interventions were described, and history and examination findings associated with these categories were determined.

Results Two hundred seventy-two patients were included; 34 patients (12.5%; 95% confidence interval [CI], 8.8%–17%) required intervention/monitoring. These patients were classified into 6 categories. Eighteen had hematologic disorders (6.6%; 95% CI, 4.0%–10.3%), 8 had dehydration (2.9%; 95% CI, 1.3%–5.7%), 2 had intracranial bleeds (0.7%; 95% CI, 0.09%–2.6%), 3 had serious bacterial infections (1%; 95% CI, 0.2%–3.2%), 1 had a cardiac disorder (0.4%; 95% CI, 0.009%–2%), and 2 had neurologic disorders (0.7%; 95% CI, 0.9%–2.6%). Of the patients, 76% had conditions that were clinically evident (dehydration and hyperbilirubinemia requiring phototherapy). The patients with cardiac disorders, neurologic disorders, and intracranial bleeds all had abnormal examination findings in the ED. The 3 patients with serious bacterial infections were younger than 2 months of age and ill appearing; all had urinary tract infections.

Conclusions Infants with lethargy or poor feeding who require an intervention are likely to have conditions that are clinically evident or focal examination findings that lead to the diagnosis. Well-appearing infants with normal findings in examinations are unlikely to have a condition requiring intervention and should receive minimal testing.

From the Departments of *Pediatric Emergency Medicine, and †Quantitative Health Sciences, Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, WI.

Disclosure: The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Reprints: Tara Webb, MD, Medical College of Wisconsin, MS C550, P.O. Box 1997, Milwaukee, WI 53201 (e-mail:

© 2014 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.