image of doctors in emergency room

When Should You Go to the Emergency Department?

by Dr. Ernest Patti

Deciding when to seek medical attention is perhaps one of the most challenging things that we can face. Not only for ourselves, but especially if we are caring for children, the elderly, or those with chronic diseases or conditions. These situations can be more complicated or difficult to predict with confidence. For situations like automobile accidents, drowning, difficulty breathing, obvious fractures, or significant head injuries, you should err on the side of being conservative and seek help.

It’s the less obvious ones that cause confusion, especially for folks who do not have any medical training, or for those who are not fully familiar with the human body “owner’s manual.” Stick with common sense, especially for the very young, very old, those with diabetes, asthma, heart disease, chronic medical conditions, and behavioral disorders. When in doubt, call 911. The operators can talk you through a lot of situations until help arrives.

  • Shortness of breath and inability to breathe is a medical emergency, don’t delay care.
  • Chest pain, palpitations, unexplained sweating, fatigue, confusion, dizziness, facial weakness, inability to speak, loss of arm or leg strength, sudden and severe headache, and inability to walk, can all be symptoms of heart attack, stroke, or bleeding in the brain.
  • A fall or blow to the head with loss of consciousness, vomiting, headaches, or numbness or weakness is a concussion that can be complicated by bleeding in the brain and/or a fracture.
  • Unexplained fever (especially higher than 103 F) and or an unusual rash, bruising, or change in behavior can indicate a serious infection like meningitis.
  • Any bleeding that doesn’t stop, bones or body parts that look deformed or “not normal”, large burns that blister or involve sensitive areas, and cuts that are deep and continue to bleed need to be evaluated for fractures, infections,
    or vascular injuries.
  • Any human, animal, or insect bites or puncture wounds, especially if they appear infected (red, painful, and swollen) need to be treated for infections including blood-borne pathogens like HIV, Hepatitis, Syphilis, etc.
  • Large blisters, infection, abscesses that are painful and spreading, need to be examined for cellulitis.
  • Abdominal or pelvic pain, especially if it is accompanied by persistent vomiting, diarrhea, or urinary complaints, needs to be evaluated for infection, dehydration, etc.
  • Any chemical, burn, or foreign object injury to the eyes needs to be evaluated quickly; wash the eye with plenty of water immediately prior to arrival of care.
  • Any sudden, unexplained numbness, limb weakness, difficulty walking, seeing or hearing, or an inability to perform usual activities of daily living needs to be evaluated

When in doubt, always seek help and avoid losing precious time in the meantime.