Not all emergencies are life-threatening, and not all life-threatening conditions are emergencies when they are known and medicated or treated and managed.
Knowing when you’re in the midst of a real emergency, and what to do in that event, empowers you to take the right action immediately. Precious minutes can be wasted when you panic or are uncertain what would be the correct course of action.
Defining a Medical Emergency
We all think we understand exactly what constitutes a medical emergency until we’re faced with a situation that’s both frightening and upsetting. Then, reason seems to fly out the window and we can sometimes wonder whether we’re overreacting and ought to be able to cope alone.
Knowing exactly what a medical emergency is takes all the guesswork out of the equation. If someone is in a life-threatening situation that needs urgent care in order to prevent his or her condition becoming worse, it’s a medical emergency. If you’re unsure whether to call emergency services, answer these questions:
- Will I hurt this person more if I move them?
- Are they at risk of dying or losing limbs?
- Do they need specialized emergency equipment that only paramedics or EMTs (emergency medical services) have?
- Are they getting worse?
- Will traffic or distance prevent me getting them to the hospital quickly?
You should call 911 straight away if any of the answers are ‘yes’.
Types of Medical Emergency
These are some of the conditions classed as medical emergencies. The list isn’t exhaustive but it covers many of the situations or circumstances that paramedics and EMTs see every day:
- Anyone who is experiencing numbness or weakness in parts of their body, or who is having difficulty talking.
- Anyone with severe difficulty in breathing, or chest pain, especially if these do not get better after rest.
- Where a leg is broken, or broken bones are visible through the open wound.
- Anyone with severe burns, who is choking, drowning, has been poisoned or taken an overdose.
- Sudden, severe headache.
- Bleeding you can’t stop, or bleeding from any orifices including the mouth or nose, anus or vagina.
- In cases of allergic reaction, especially if breathing is impaired.
- Anyone feeling unusually hot or cold.
- Anyone experiencing sudden blindness.
- Anyone suddenly unable to walk, feeling dizzy, confused or showing very unusual, strange behavior.
- If someone is threatening suicide or to hurt someone else.
What to Tell Emergency Services
When you phone, trained dispatchers will ask some questions so they know the nature of the emergency and who to send to help you. Don’t worry that the questions are delaying help reaching you. A response is put in action immediately while the dispatcher talks to you. They will want to know:
- Where you are? Be exact. They need to reach you quickly, without any missed turns.
- What happened?
- Your name and contact details.
They’ll tell you when they have all the information they need, and when you should hang up.
While you wait for help to arrive, you can continue caring for the injured or sick person as best you can to keep them calm and comfortable. You could, for instance, use whatever cloths are to hand to apply direct pressure to bleeding wounds. If you’re at home, turn all the lights on inside and out to draw attention to the house and make it easier for emergency services to find you. Locate any legal documents or medical history of the person that will help in their treatment.
What If I’m Still Unsure?
If you’re not sure whether to call, do it anyway.
Something serious and worrying is happening or you wouldn’t be considering making that phone call. It’s far better to phone and speak to a trained dispatcher who is able to determine what level of help you need. Never be afraid to phone if you’re not sure. It’s far better to make a mistake than risk a life.
Don’t Hang Up Once You’ve Dialed
If you dial then change your mind, don’t hang up. Wait for someone to answer then tell them all is well and you made a mistake. That way, no one will be sent out looking for you.
If you just hang up, maybe thinking you’ll free the line for someone else with an emergency, the dispatchers may wonder if something serious happened to make you end the call, and then waste time and resources trying to check up on you. On the other hand, it takes just a moment to say you called by mistake.
It’s not always easy to make the right decision during the trauma of sudden accident or injury, but a general awareness of what a medical emergency is can help you take action, faster.