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10 Things to Know in Case of a Health Emergency

In a health emergency, the questions come at you rapid fire. Armed with the right knowledge, they become a little bit easier to answer. Say you have a deep cut or your friend likely has a broken arm. How do you treat the issue right now? And then -- do you go straight to the emergency room, call 911 or make a doctor’s appointment? According to Jayson Podber, M.D., an emergency physician at Stamford Hospital in Connecticut, go to the hospital ER for problems like abdominal pain, chest pain and severe headache. But he recommends urgent care for ear infections, a sore throat, cuts or bruises. “When in doubt,” he says, “it's always safest to call 911.” Read on to find out what else you need to know.

1. When to Call 911

“If you are having symptoms of a heart attack, difficulty breathing or stroke, call 911 immediately,” says Laurie Martinka, a paramedic at Chilton Memorial Hospital in Pompton Plains, New Jersey. Symptoms that stick around for days or weeks, such as seasonal allergies, a persistent cough that is not getting better or worse, or general aches and pains not accompanied by high fever, are considered chronic conditions and aren’t considered emergencies. Those can be tended to by your regular physician. To be prepared for an emergency, make sure that your phone carrier provides the enhanced 9-1-1 service -- or E911 -- that gives your location from a landline or wireless phone.

2. When to Consider Urgent Care

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If you need to see a doctor quickly without an appointment, the emergency room isn’t the only -- or the best -- choice. “Urgent care facilities are good for ear infections, strep throat, tonsillitis, small cuts needing to be butterflied or stitched, or if you suspect a sprain,” Martinka says. However, she says that many urgent care centers do not have x-ray machines, so for obvious breaks, head to a hospital or orthopedic urgent care facility.

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3. Want to Help? Keep Calm and Call 911 First.

“Panicking, usually leads to poor decision-making and can make a bad situation worse,” cautions Dr. Podber. “If you are trained in CPR, and have determined that it is necessary, then you should begin CPR after calling 911.” If you aren’t CPR trained, providing emotional assistance is usually more than enough until paramedics or other first responders can arrive.

4. Tips For Calling 911

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Before calling, make sure your cell phone has location services enabled and figure out your exact location. “It is estimated that about 70 percent of 911 calls are placed from wireless phones, and that percentage is growing,” according to an FCC consumer guide on 911 Wireless Services. If your phone isn’t registered to you or if it doesn’t have location services turned on, your location won’t automatically be shared with a 911 operator. Even with location services turned on, you’ll usually need to give specific details about your location for EMTs to reach you.

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5. Important Information to Gather

“My number one wish as an emergency provider would be that everybody have a written list of important relevant medical information on their person,” says Martinka. Failing that, try to find out any medications that the person takes, allergies and medical conditions or surgeries. You can also gather insurance information and the person’s cell phone and charger to contact friends and family while you wait for help. Most importantly, stay calm. “Know that when you call 911, emergency providers are on their way to helping you. Many police officers (often the first on scene) have first aid training,” she says.

6. Don’t Move an Accident Victim

Unless instructed by emergency personnel, keep an accident victim where you find him or her. “A good rule of thumb is to always leave someone alone, unless you believe there is an imminent risk if they stay in that location,” explains Dr. Podber. “For example, most cars will not catch on fire after an automobile accident; that is something only seen in the movies.”

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7. Treat Burns According to Severity

A first-degree burn like sunburn requires little more than ibuprofen, a soak in cool water and a layer of aloe or soothing cream. A second-degree burn that blisters, turns red and hurts can be treated with pain relief and a cool towel, but don’t apply any cream or lotion. A third-degree burn that blisters and turns white may not be painful because nerve endings may be damaged, but it must be treated immediately. Call 911 for any burns to the face, chest, hands, feet, or genital area.

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8. Apply Pressure to Severe Cuts

First, apply firm, steady pressure with a clean towel, dressing or cloth to stop the bleeding. If you can, raise the cut above the heart to let gravity work with you. “If bleeding doesn’t stop with direct pressure, press on the closest pressure point,” Martinka advises. “If your cut is on your hand or arm, for example, press down on your bicep as hard as you can while holding the arm up.” Keep the dressing in place to let the blood clot, placing additional dressings on top if it bleeds through. If direct pressure does not stop bleeding, you can apply a tourniquet, but call 911 immediately as prolonged tourniquet can cause more serious problems.

9. Immobilize Area Around a Broken Bone

If you suspect there is a broken arm, leg, hand or foot, immobilize the area including the joint above and the joint below. “The point is to stop the bones from moving; so anything that you can use to keep it from moving is useful,” says Martinka. “You can use anything that gives structure and support,” Martinka explains, even pillows or magazines. “Try to splint the bone in a position of comfort and don’t try to straighten an obvious fracture --splint it as you find it.” Once a splint is in place, carefully transport the person to the hospital or urgent care. “If you think you have broken your forearm, for example, the splint should cover from your wrist past your elbow,” Dr. Podber explains.

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10. Tell an Ambulance Your Chosen Hospital (Within Reason)

When you’re in the vicinity of a hospital that your insurance plan covers, many insurance carriers require that you go to that hospital. “As a patient you have the ability to choose which hospital you are taken to within reason,” says Dr. Podber. “Keep in mind however, that EMS will always do what is safest for the patient, and will override the patient preference if necessary.”

What Do YOU Think?

Was there any information in this piece that was new to you, or did you know all of this already? Have you ever been in a health emergency? What happened? What did you learn from your experience? What other tips should we add to this list?

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