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When to Use the Emergency Room (ER)

Man pushing woman in wheelchair in hospital hallway.

An emergency means you could die if you don’t get care quickly. Or you could be hurt permanently (disabled). Read below to know when to use—and when not to use—an emergency room (ER).

Dangers to your life

Here are examples of emergencies. This is not a complete list. These need immediate care:

  • A hard time breathing (shortness of breath)

  • Severe chest pain or pressure

  • A fast or pounding heartbeat (palpitations) or fluttering in your heart

  • Choking

  • Severe bleeding

  • Suddenly unable to move or speak 

  • Suddenly not being able to feel an arm or a leg

  • Blacking out (fainting)`

  • Poisoning

  • Coughing or vomiting blood

  • Severe or lasting vomiting or diarrhea

  • Severe belly (abdominal) pain

  • Changes in mental status or confusion, trouble waking up, abnormal behavior

  • Changes in vision

  • Sudden onset of the "worst headache of your life"

  • Suicidal thoughts

  • Thoughts of harming another person

Dangers of permanent injuries

Here are other emergencies. These also need care right away:

  • Deep cuts or severe burns

  • Broken bones, or sudden severe pain and swelling in a joint

When it’s an emergency

If you have an emergency, follow the steps below.

1. Go to the nearest emergency room

  • If you can, go to the hospital ER closest to you right away.

  • If you can't get there right away, or if it isn't safe to move the person who is hurt or take yourself, call 911 or your police emergency number.

2. Call your primary care doctor after the emergency care

  • Tell your health about the emergency. Call within 24 hours of going to the ER.

  • If you can't call, have someone call for you.

  • Go to your doctor (not the ER) for any follow-up care.

When it’s not an emergency

If a problem is not an emergency, follow these steps:

1. Call your primary care doctor

  • If you don’t know the name of your doctor, call your health insurance plan.

  • If you can't call, have someone call for you.

  • If you don't have a primary care doctor, try visiting an urgent care center or walk-in clinic.

2. Follow instructions

  • Your doctor will tell you what you should do.

  • You may be told to see your doctor right away. You may be told to go to the ER. Or you may be told to go to an urgent care center.

  • Follow your doctor’s advice.

© 2000-2020 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.