When to Go to the Emergency Room and What to Expect

Learn when it's time to call 911 or prepare for emergency care during a crisis

A team of doctors gathers for a smile outside of the emergency room.

by Valerie Norton, MD, Chief of Emergency Medicine

A medical emergency can be one of the most trying and scary times of anyone’s life. There are, however, a few things that you can do to help make the time easier on you and your loved ones.

We at the emergency room know that the last thing you want to do when you or a loved one is ill is wait, but someone’s life may depend on it. To save lives and prevent complications, we must treat people according to the severity of their illness or injury and not their time of arrival.

Understanding emergency care

To put it simply, emergency care is not first-come, first-serve. This may mean you have to wait, but know that we are doing everything in our power to see you as quickly and safely as possible.

When you first arrive at the ER, you will see the triage nurse. They typically assess your condition to determine how quickly you must be seen by a physician. Someone having a heart attack or stroke, for instance, will be seen before someone with a chest cold or toothache.

Scripps Mercy Hospital is a Level 1 trauma center, the highest designation for emergency care, and therefore receives a lot of patients by ambulance who need to be seen and treated immediately.

Sometimes a particular problem requires a special treatment area, such as for eye injuries, or a private area for abdominal exams. If it seems like other people are going ahead of you, this may be why.

For some injuries, such as a sprained ankle, we may ask if it would be acceptable for a doctor to see you on a chair in the hallway. This is in an effort to reduce your waiting time, but if you would rather be seen in private, don’t hesitate to let someone know.

Medications and surgeries

It’s a good idea for anyone taking medications to keep a list of the drugs and their dosages with them at all times. This includes prescriptions, as well as over-the-counter medications and vitamins. The general rule is that if it’s strong enough to help you, it’s important for your doctor to know about it because it’s also strong enough to hurt you. For instance, vitamins C and E can inhibit the effectiveness of Lipitor.

Also, bring a list of allergies — especially to medications — along with previous invasive medical procedures and surgeries, the dates they were done and the names of the physician or surgeon who treated you. Knowledge of past operations can be very useful in making an accurate diagnosis.

Preventing medical emergencies

Many medical emergencies can be prevented through regular visits to your family doctor, annual hearing and eye exams and taking all medications as prescribed by your physician. Regular exercise, proper footwear, smoking cessation and limiting alcohol intake can also go a long way toward keeping someone out of the emergency room.

At home, securing loose rugs, removing clutter and installing handrails on stairs and nightlights in dark areas can prevent slips and falls.

When to call 911

Many people are confused about when they should call 911. It’s better to be safe than sorry. If you are in doubt, please call 911.

Also, it’s important to know that for certain conditions or medical emergencies, such as a heart attack or stroke, it is essential to call 911 because paramedics can deliver life-saving care en route to the hospital, which could make a huge difference in the patient’s outcome.

This list is not exhaustive, but if you experience any of the following symptoms, you should call 911 immediately:

  • Persistent chest pain
  • Persistent shortness of breath
  • Persistent abdominal pain
  • Fainting
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Weakness or paralysis
  • Loss of balance
  • Intestinal bleeding
  • Falls with injury
  • Falls while taking blood thinners
  • Loss of vision
  • Persistent sweating
  • Decreased mental status

If you experience any of the following symptoms, you should call your doctor for an appointment or visit an urgent care center as soon as possible:

  • Fever
  • Persistent cough
  • Painful urination
  • Vomiting
  • Persistent diarrhea
  • Minor trauma
  • Sore throat

Colds and the flu

There isn’t a whole lot that can be done about colds in general. Most colds last two weeks and the cough sometimes lingers for three to four weeks. Antibiotics are not helpful in the vast majority of cases. The best advice we can give is to take plenty of fluids, a fever reducer such as Tylenol and get plenty of rest.

Making choices for your health

Emergency rooms are an essential part of any health care system and are available to you and your loved ones at any time for medical needs, both great and small.

Remember that you are in control of your medical care and that with a few simple steps you can make an ER visit less stressful and more effective.

This Scripps Health and Wellness information was provided by Valerie Norton, M.D., Chief of Emergency Medicine, Scripps Mercy Hospital.