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When Should I Go to the Emergency Room?

By Amanda Barnhart
Updated May 17, 2024
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Knowing when to go to the emergency room (ER) can save you time and money, because visits to your regular doctor will likely be cheaper than the ER. Some conditions and problems that may seem like an emergency can actually wait a day or so before being evaluated and treated, but others reqire immediate care. You should generally go to the emergency room if you experience chest pain, stroke symptoms, shortness of breath, severe bleeding or injury, unconsciousness, poisoning, or an allergic reaction.

Chest pain that lasts more than a minute or two can signal a heart attack, which requires emergency medical attention. Other heart attack symptoms include chest tightness, upper body pain, and severe lightheadedness. Stroke symptoms include sudden, severe headaches, slurred speech, pain or weakness on one side of the body, and sudden vision changes. While many of these symptoms can occur in patients who are not experiencing a heart attack or stroke, it is best to err on the side of caution and go to the emergency room if you experience these symptoms.

Shortness of breath that lasts more than a few seconds is often cause for a visit to the ER. If you are suffering from a respiratory infection or other minor illness you may feel slightly short of breath, and this is not usually cause for alarm. Not being able to catch your breath or take a full breath could be a sign of a serious medical problem, however.

Any accident that results in severe bleeding or a major injury should be evaluated by a doctor as soon as possible. Bleeding that doesn't subside within a few minutes of pressure and first aid care could indicate a serious problem, particularly if the bleeding is from the abdomen, chest, neck, or head. Severe injuries that result in broken bones other than fingers or toes, unconsciousness, or immobility also require emergency care. If you suffer a back or neck injury, it's best to call an ambulance and stay in the position you're in until help arrives.

If you suspect you've ingested poison, going to the emergency room can stop a potentially fatal situation. Overdosing on prescription medications, street drugs, and many over-the-counter medicines either intentionally or unintentionally can have drastic consequences and requires prompt treatment. Allergic reactions to insect bites or medications can also be extremely serious and require immediate treatment. The most common symptoms of an allergic reaction are extreme swelling, particularly of the face or the area of the bite or sting, trouble breathing, dizziness, or confusion.

Low-grade fevers, colds, sprains, pulled muscles, and minor burns don't typically require emergency care. If you're feeling ill but are able to control your symptoms, it's best to make an appointment to see your regular doctor or visit a health care clinic during their normal hours rather than going to the emergency room. Any illness accompanied by an extremely high fever or uncontrolled vomiting may require emergency treatment. If you're pregnant or suffer from a serious chronic medical condition, talk to your doctor about possible situations that would require you to go to the emergency room.

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