Recognizing Emergencies

How do you tell the difference between a true emergency and a minor problem? Certain symptoms are so alarming that the need for emergency care -- or even an ambulance -- is obvious. But what should you do about more common illnesses and injuries? Only a doctor can diagnose medical problems. But you can protect your family's health by learning to recognize certain symptoms and knowing which symptoms to watch for.

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

  • Difficulty breathing, shortness of breath
  • Chest or upper abdominal pain or pressure
  • Fainting
  • Sudden dizziness, weakness or change in vision
  • Change in mental status (such as unusual behavior, confusion, difficulty waking)
  • Sudden, severe pain anywhere in the body
  • Bleeding that won't stop after 10 minutes of direct pressure
  • Severe or persistent vomiting
  • Coughing up or vomiting blood
  • Suicidal or homicidal feelings

You should also be familiar with the symptoms of common illnesses and injuries. Talk to your regular doctor before you have an emergency. Ask what you should do if you think someone in your family needs emergency care, such as:

  • Should you call the doctor's office first?
  • Should you go straight to the emergency department?
  • What should you do when the doctor's office is closed?

Many other factors, including the time of day, other medical problems or state of mind, can make an otherwise minor medical problem an “emergency.” Trust your instincts. If you are alarmed by unusually severe symptoms that you believe could be an emergency, it's best to seek care.


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