Listen To Your Symptoms: When To Seek Emergency Care

At what point does a fever or stomach ache become a medical emergency? If you slice your finger with a knife, or you are having the worst headache you’ve ever had, should you seek emergency care? How do you know?

The answers are simple: if you think you are having the symptoms of a medical emergency, you should seek emergency care as quickly as possible. Emergencies are determined based on the symptoms that bring you to the ER in the first place, not on your final diagnosis. The same symptoms can mean many medical conclusions and oftentimes it takes an experienced physician and several medical tests to determine if those symptoms represent some minor ailment or something potentially life-threatening.

While urgent care centers have a role to play in the health care system, they are not substitutes for emergency care. They are an option for common medical problems when a physician’s office is closed, but more serious problems require screening and treatment at an emergency department.

“Many people experience the symptoms of an emergency, such as stroke or a heart attack, but for various reasons, such as doubt, they delay seeking care right away,” said Becky Parker, MD, FACEP, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians. “For many medical emergencies, time is of the essence. Delays in treatment can lead to more serious consequences.”

Emergency physicians want to educate every person to recognize the warning signs of a medical emergency. Here are some common warning signs and symptoms:

•Difficulty breathing, shortness of breath
•Chest or upper abdominal pain, or pressure lasting two minutes or more
•Fainting, sudden dizziness, weakness
•Change in vision
•Difficulty speaking
•Confusion in mental status, unusual behavior, difficulty walking
•Any sudden or severe pain
•Uncontrolled bleeding
•Severe or persistent vomiting or diarrhea
•Coughing or vomiting blood
•Suicidal or homicidal feelings
•Unusual abdominal pain

These are just a few examples and not intended to represent every kind of medical emergency or substitute for medical advice from your physician.

“I’d much rather tell a patient that their diagnosis is not serious and send them home than tell them they should have come to the ER sooner,” said Dr. Parker. “It is always better to err on the side of caution when it comes to your health or the health of a loved one.”

For more information on medical emergencies and how to prepare for emergency visits, please visit