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How To Recognize a Medical Emergency

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Updated October 24, 2010

Figuring out if medical symptoms warrant a call to 911 or a trip to the emergency department can be hard. Victims are often afraid to call, thinking their medical complaints aren't severe enough to "bother" emergency-care providers.

When trying to decide whether or not to call 911 or go to the emergency department, better to decide to go rather than not go.

Having a list of conditions for when to call 911 is good, but it's much better to know how to recognize an emergency no matter what the complaint is.

Difficulty: Average
Time Required: React quickly

Here's How:

  1. When the brain is affected.

    Medical conditions that cause changes in brain function should always be treated as emergencies. Complaints that may indicate a problem with the brain come on suddenly: weakness, numbness, or vision loss on one or both sides of the body; dizziness, confusion, trouble speaking, severe headache, loss of consciousness (fainting or passing out), or seizures.

  2. Problems breathing.

    We've all been short of breath from exercise, but when that feeling comes without any reason, it is scary. Sometimes, victims don't recognize breathing emergencies. Choking is not always called into 911 right away. Unfortunately, once a choking victim has become unconscious, very little oxygen is left in the bloodstream. Allergic reactions that cause trouble breathing or difficulty swallowing indicate anaphylaxis, a serious emergency.

  3. Problems with the heart.

    Heart attacks can feel like indigestion or like the worst pain ever. Heart attacks can also have absolutely no pain at all and just cause a weak heart, which leads to shortness of breath (see #2) or weakness/passing out (see #1). If you feel pain in the chest, particularly if it seems that nothing you do makes it feel better (rest, position, movement, etc.), it's time to dial 911 or go to the ER.

  4. Severe bleeding.

    It's not hard to control bleeding. Pressure and elevation is enough to stop most cuts from oozing blood, and the unusual step of pressure points usually takes care of the rest. If pressure alone doesn't stop the bleeding, do the rest of the steps while someone gets an ambulance. Only use a tourniquet as a last resort. If the bleeding is enough to make the victim drowsy or weak, follow the rules to treat for shock and get an ambulance.

  5. When in doubt, call 'em out!

    Some emergencies are common sense, car accidents and fires are good examples. There's no way to cover every possibility here. That's why emergency medical services providers don't expect victims to always distinguish between emergencies and non-emergencies. Plenty of seemingly innocuous complaints can have life-changing consequences if not treated quickly, and an equal number of scary situations end up being minor. If you think that you or someone else is experiencing a medical emergency, don't hesitate to call 911 or go to the emergency room.

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