You aren’t feeling great, but your doctor’s office is closed for the day. Should you wait until tomorrow, or is it an emergency?
That’s a really common question—and one many people will have at some time or another. It can be incredibly hard to decipher whether symptoms are something minor or whether they’re a sign of something more serious.
While it’s a common issue, it can also be a serious one. Emergency departments are often filled with patients seeking care for minor health issues better handled by a primary care provider, leading to longer waits for patients who are actually experiencing an emergency health issue.
That’s why it’s important to have a good understanding of symptoms that should always be considered an emergency. Read on as David Guthrie, MD, internal medicine physician with West Tennessee Medical Group, answers some common questions.
Q: What symptoms need immediate medical attention?
A: That’s a great question. The National Institutes of Health recommends calling 911 if you experience any of these symptoms, which constitute an emergency:
- Electric shock or lightning strike
- Head injury accompanied by fainting, confusion or passing out
- Injury to the neck or spine
- Seizure lasting three to five minutes
- Severe burn
- Severe chest pain or pressure
- Stoppage of breathing
It’s important to call 911 or another emergency number in those instances because a team of emergency medical personnel can come to you and begin providing care as soon as they arrive, without needing to wait to arrive at the hospital.
Q: Are there other emergency symptoms that I should be aware of?
A: Yes. The symptoms outlined above require the most urgent care, but they aren’t the only emergency symptoms. There are many other symptoms that should be checked out immediately by a medical team:
- Coughing or throwing up blood
- Deep wound
- Difficulty breathing
- Dizziness or weakness that doesn’t go away
- Heavy bleeding
- High fever that doesn’t improve with medication
- High fever with headache and stiff neck
- Pain in the arm, neck, shoulders or jaw
- Passing out or fainting
- Poisoning or overdose
- Possible broken bone accompanied by a loss of movement or a bone poking through the skin
- Severe allergic reaction with difficulty breathing, swelling or hives
- Smoke or poisonous fume inhalation
- Sudden confusion
- Sudden inability to speak, see, walk or move
- Sudden weakness or drooping on one side of the body
- Suicidal thoughts
- Throwing up or loose stools that don’t stop
- Unusual or particularly bad headache, especially with a sudden onset
If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s important to seek emergency medical attention. Either call 911 or go to a nearby emergency department.
Q: What if my symptoms aren’t listed, but I just don’t feel quite right?
A: This may be the most important part of this message. While the NIH outlines medical symptoms that always need emergency medical attention, the list is not exhaustive.
It’s important to trust your instincts. You know your body, and if you don’t feel right or feel as if something is “off” with your health, it’s important for you to be checked out.
It’s always better to err on the side of caution and receive medical attention than to pass potential emergency symptoms off as something that isn’t serious. As the saying goes, “It’s better to be safe than sorry.”
Q: What symptoms can wait until my doctor’s office reopens?
A: While you should always seek care if you’re concerned your symptoms are serious, most symptoms related to minor health issues can wait until regular office hours or be taken care of in an urgent care clinic.
That includes symptoms of common illnesses such as the flu, the common cold, earaches, sore throats, headaches, low fevers and rashes. Minor injuries, including sprains, back pain, minor cuts and burns and some broken bones, can also be treated during regular office hours.
If you’re unsure whether your condition can wait, give your medical provider’s office a call. There’s typically a medical provider “on call” to answer questions and allay concerns. He or she can listen to your symptoms and provide guidance about next steps, including at-home care options until you can be seen.