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Recognizing medical emergencies

Medical emergencies - how to recognize them

Getting medical help right away for someone who is having a medical emergency can save their life. This article describes the warning signs of a medical emergency and how to be prepared.

Information

According to the American College of Emergency Physicians, the following are warning signs of a medical emergency:

  • Bleeding that will not stop
  • Breathing problems (difficulty breathing, shortness of breath)
  • Change in mental status (such as unusual behavior, confusion, difficulty arousing)
  • Chest pain
  • Choking
  • Coughing up or vomiting blood
  • Fainting or loss of consciousness
  • Feeling of committing suicide or murder
  • Head or spine injury
  • Severe or persistent vomiting
  • Sudden injury due to a motor vehicle accident, burns or smoke inhalation, near drowning, deep or large wound, or other injuries
  • Sudden, severe pain anywhere in the body
  • Sudden dizziness, weakness, or change in vision
  • Swallowing a poisonous substance
  • Severe abdominal pain or pressure

BE PREPARED:

  • Determine the location and quickest route to the nearest emergency department before an emergency happens.
  • Keep emergency phone numbers posted by your home phone. Also enter the numbers into your cell phone. Everyone in your household, including children, should know when and how to call these numbers. These numbers include: fire department, police department, poison control center, ambulance center, your doctors' phone numbers, contact numbers of neighbors or nearby friends or relatives, and work phone numbers.
  • Know at which hospital(s) your doctor practices and, if practical, go there in an emergency.
  • Wear a medical identification tag if you have a chronic condition or look for one on a person who has any of the symptoms mentioned.
  • Get a personal emergency response system if you're an older adult, especially if you live alone.

WHAT TO DO IF SOMEONE NEEDS HELP:

  • Stay calm, and call your local emergency number (such as 911).
  • Start CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) or rescue breathing, if necessary and if you know the proper technique.
  • Place a semiconscious or unconscious person in the recovery position until the ambulance arrives. DO NOT move the person, however, if there has been or may have been a neck injury.

Upon arriving at an emergency room, the person will be evaluated right away. Life- or limb-threatening conditions will be treated first. People with conditions that are not life- or limb-threatening may have to wait.

CALL YOUR LOCAL EMERGENCY NUMBER (SUCH AS 911) IF:

  • The person's condition is life threatening (for example, the person is having a heart attack or severe allergic reaction)
  • The person's condition could become life threatening on the way to the hospital
  • Moving the person could cause further injury (for example, in case of a neck injury or motor vehicle accident)
  • The person needs the skills or equipment of paramedics
  • Traffic conditions or distance might cause a delay in getting the person to the hospital

References

American College of Emergency Physicians. Is it an emergency? Emergencycareforyou.org Web site. www.emergencycareforyou.org/Emergency-101/Is-it-an-Emergency-/. Accessed February 8, 2017.

Blackwell TH. Emergency medical services: overview and ground transport. In: Marx JA, Hockberger RS, Walls RM, et al, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 190.

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    • Neck pulse

      Neck pulse

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      • Stopping bleeding with direct pressure

        Stopping bleeding with d...

        illustration

      • Stopping bleeding with a tourniquet

        Stopping bleeding with a...

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      • Stopping bleeding with pressure and ice

        Stopping bleeding with p...

        illustration

      • Neck pulse

        Neck pulse

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      Review Date: 1/1/2017

      Reviewed By: Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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