Emergency Care For You

Emergency 101

Is it an Emergency?

Medical emergencies can be frightening and stressful. But knowing what to do in an emergency can help you effectively deal with the situation. Here you can find information about emergencies.

It is essential to know how to recognize the signs of a medical emergency—because correctly interpreting and acting on these signs could potentially save the life of a loved one—or your own life—one day. Many people experience the symptoms of an emergency, such as a stroke or a heart attack, but for various reasons (such as fear), delay seeking care right away. For many medical emergencies, time is of the essence, and delays in treatment can often lead to more serious consequences.

Emergency physicians believe it is the responsibility of every individual to learn to recognize the warning signs of a medical emergency. The following signs and symptoms and are not intended to represent every kind of medical emergency or substitute for medical advice from your physician, but rather to provide examples of common issues:

Warning Signs and Symptoms

  • Difficulty breathing, shortness of breath
  • Chest or upper abdominal pain or pressure lasting two minutes or more
  • Fainting, sudden dizziness, weakness
  • Changes in vision
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Confusion or changes in mental status, unusual behavior, difficulty waking
  • Any sudden or severe pain
  • Uncontrolled bleeding
  • Severe or persistent vomiting or diarrhea
  • Coughing or vomiting blood
  • Suicidal or homicidal feelings
  • Unusual abdominal pain

You also can learn to recognize—and act on— emergency warning signs by taking a first aid class and learning CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation). Your local hospital, American Red Cross or American Heart Association may conduct first aid courses in your area or can guide you to organizations that do so.­­

Should You Drive or Call an Ambulance

If you answer "yes" to any of the following questions about a person experiencing a medical emergency, or if you are unsure, it's best to call an ambulance, even if you think you can get to the hospital faster by driving yourself.

  • Does the person's condition appear life-threatening?
  • Could the person's condition worsen and become life-threatening on the way to the hospital?
  • Could moving the person cause further injury?
  • Does the person need the skills or equipment employed by paramedics or emergency medical technicians?
  • Would distance or traffic conditions cause a delay in getting the person to the hospital?
  • If you drive to the hospital, know the location and the fastest route to the nearest emergency department.

In Addition

  • Don't delay care by driving to a more distant hospital emergency department.
  • In many cases, you or the affected person will be treated in the community hospital emergency department, which is staffed and equipped to provide life-saving emergency care for patients of any age.
  • If necessary, a patient may be transferred to a hospital with special capabilities, such as a regional trauma or pediatric center.

If you call an ambulance, keep in mind that even though the 911 system was introduced in 1968, the network still does not completely cover some rural areas of the United States and Canada. Find out if your community is covered, and if not, get the telephone number for the local Emergency Medical Services and post it by your phone. When traveling, check for local EMS numbers in the areas where you will be, so you have this information before you begin your journey.

Also, be aware it is important for people calling 911 from wireless phones to tell the emergency operator the location of the emergency, because a cell tower provides only very general information about the location of a caller. Some cars now are equipped with "smart" technologies that use global positioning system satellites and cellular technology to link vehicles to direct emergency help, but many are not.

When You Call for Help, Remember

  • Speak calmly and clearly.
  • Give the name, address, phone number, and location of the person in need (e.g., upstairs in the bedroom), and describe the nature of the problem.
  • Don't hang up until the dispatcher tells you to. The dispatcher may need more information.
  • Teach your children how to place an emergency call, in case you are seriously ill or injured.
  • For highway emergencies, know the nearest highway marker number, and if dealing with a wreck, know how to identify the lanes (e.g., northbound) on the highway so you can give that information to the dispatcher.