When Is It an Emergency?

Be aware of when something seemingly minor could pose a more significant threat.
When Is It an Emergency?

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Rub some dirt on it and walk it off was probably good enough health advice for the playground when we were kids. While it might still work for some routine workplace injuries, there are times when it’s wise to take a few minutes to make sure that normal boo-boo isn’t something more serious.

How would you handle the situation if one of your employees or co-workers slipped and hit his head when you were almost done with a cleaning job? Or felt sick after being exposed to chemical vapors as you were setting up for a job? Would you tell him to take a break? How would you determine if it warranted a higher level of concern? Making the right call, and taking extra precaution when required, could make the difference between a bad day and someone’s last day.

The American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) says a medical emergency is an event that includes “severe pain, bad injury, a serious illness, or a medical condition that is quickly getting much worse.” Some examples:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Severe shortness of breath
  • Facial drooping or weakness in an arm or leg
  • Chest pain
  • Bleeding that does not stop after 10 minutes
  • Head trauma
  • Seizures
  • Severe reaction to insect bites
  • Major broken bones
  • Coughing or vomiting blood

Urgent care center

Despite the name, urgent care centers are intended to treat common medical problems when you can’t see your normal doctor or after regular office hours. As ACEP describes them, “They treat minor illnesses and injuries, such as flu, fever, earaches, nausea, rashes, animal and insect bites, minor bone fractures and minor cuts requiring stitches. Many centers also do physical exams, vision and hearing screening, and lab tests and X-rays.” So they may be appropriate for follow-up care after a minor injury, but an urgent care center is not the place to go for a serious injury or medical condition.

When to call an ambulance

Whether it’s the cost, the bother, or just not wanting to tie up emergency personnel, people do hesitate to call an ambulance and decide to transport the victim, or themselves, to a hospital. ACEP says these questions will help you decide if you should pick up the phone and call 9-1-1.

  • Is the condition life- or limb-threatening?
  • Could the condition worsen quickly on the way to the hospital?
  • If you move the victim, will it cause further injury?
  • Does the person need skills or equipment that paramedics or EMTs carry right away?
  • Would distance or traffic cause a delay in getting the person to the hospital?
  • And then there are times when it is necessary to call 9-1-1 and get professional medical assistance on scene as soon as possible. These include:
  • Severe difficulty breathing, especially that does not improve with rest
  • Chest pain
  • A fast heartbeat (more than 120-150) at rest especially if associated with shortness of breath or feeling faint
  • You witness someone faint/pass out or someone is unresponsive (comatose)
  • Difficulty speaking, numbness, or weakness of any part of the body
  • Sudden dizziness, weakness or mental changes (confusion, very odd behavior, difficulty walking)
  • Sudden blindness or vision changes
  • Heavy bleeding
  • Broken bones visible through an open wound, or a broken leg
  • Severe burns
  • Allergic reaction, especially if there is any difficulty breathing
  • Extremely hot or cold
  • New severe headache
  • Sudden intense severe pain


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