When to Call 911

By Sally Wadyka. Medically reviewed by Tom Iarocci, MD. May 7th 2016

Every day across the U.S., 911 operators handle more than 2,000 calls. While some calls may not actually be emergencies, many are, so it’s best not to question anything. If you, a family caregiver, a loved one, a friend or even a coworker ever feels uncertain about calling 911, don’t.

“When you are in doubt, call 911 anyway, and let the emergency operator decide whether or not your situation requires a trip to the hospital,” says David Frid, MD, a physician, cardiologist and spokesperson at Cleveland Clinic.

As a general rule of thumb, call 911 if you are involved in — or a witness to — a fire, a crime in progress, a car accident or any situation in which someone is unconscious, having trouble breathing or uncontrollably bleeding.

Here are some of the other major medical reasons to call 911, according to the American Red Cross:

1.      Possible heart attack
Of the more than 2,000 daily 911 calls, a large majority of them are for a person showing symptoms of a heart attack. While some people may recognize the symptoms of a heart attack, many first-timers may not realize what’s happening and, sadly, do not get to the hospital on time, says paramedic and author Dale Hemstalk from Sacramento, Calif.

Symptoms of a heart attack include crushing, unbearable chest pain, discomfort and breathing difficulties. Many people may also feel fatigued and nauseous or have an abnormally fast pulse or blue skin discoloration.
If you suspect you might be having a heart attack, don’t delay calling for assistance, urges Frid. “Chewing an aspirin while you wait for the EMTs to arrive can also help.” 

2.      Drug overdose
Signs and symptoms of a drug overdose differ from person to person based on the specific drug and the amount taken. In general though, symptoms of a drug overdose include nausea, vomiting, an abnormal pupil size, difficulty breathing, convulsions, sweating, hallucinations or tremors. If you even suspect you or a loved one may have overdosed on a drug, call 911 immediately.

3.      Anaphylactic shock
Also referred to as a severe allergic reaction, anaphylactic shock occurs quickly after being exposed to the allergen, usually within seconds or minutes. Symptoms may include swelling of the face; eyes or tongue; rash; diarrhea; breathing or swallowing difficulties; nausea or vomiting; palpitations; slurred speech; chest discomfort; or hives.

4.      Broken bones (visible through skin)
Clinically called an open or compound fracture, a visible broken bone requires immediate medical attention. Aside from the visual sign of a protruding bone, symptoms include excruciating pain, bleeding, an inability to move the limb, numbness and tingling.

5.      Bloody diarrhea and/or vomit with weakness
Many common cases of diarrhea or vomiting usually don’t require medical attention, but if you find blood in your stool or vomit, call 911 immediately. It could be a sign of a serious condition (e.g., pancreatitis), inflammatory bowel disease (e.g., Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis) or even cancer.

6.      Coughing with airway blockage
An obstructed airway can be caused by a number of things, but choking is one of the most common. Most people who are choking know to grab their throat, but other signs to look for include the inability to cough, speak or breathe; a weak cough; bluish skin color; or high-pitched sounds while breathing.
In these instances, have someone call 911 immediately, and perform the Heimlich maneuver and other first-aid techniques while waiting for help to arrive. If you don’t know how to properly respond to a choking incident, the American Red Cross strongly recommends you and a family caregiver get trained. 

7.      Serious burns
The average sunburn or oven burn may not be a big deal, but a severe burn should be taken much more seriously. Call 911 if the burn covers more than one large body part or surface area; affects a child or infant; or involves the head, neck, mouth, nose, hands, feet or genitals. If you have a chemical or electric burn or if it was the result of an explosion, also call for medical help.

8.      Heat stroke
Heat stroke can be life-threatening, so don’t delay calling for help. Symptoms of heat stroke include nausea or vomiting; flushed skin; rapid breathing; rapid heart rate; throbbing headache; hallucinations; slurred speech; chills; and high body temperature (104 degrees Fahrenheit or above).
As you’re waiting for help, try to cool the person down by moving to a shaded, cool area; showering or sponging him or her with water; applying cold, wet washcloths; and fanning his or her body.

9.      Bites or stings
Bites or stings — whether from an animal, insect, reptile or arachnid like a spider or scorpion — may not appear to be serious, but if you notice bite marks, pain, swelling, nausea, vomiting, bleeding or breathing difficulties, call for help immediately.  

10.   Observable poisoning
If you see spilled containers, an open medicine cabinet or scattered pills, it could be a sign that someone has ingested a poisonous substance. Symptoms of poisoning can vary, but in general, look for burns or redness around the mouth; seizures; chest pain; breathing difficulties; sweating; dizziness; vomiting; nausea; or diarrhea.
Even if you don’t see any serious, visible symptoms, it’s always a good idea to call your local poison center or the American Association of Poison Control Centers (800-222-1222).

11.  Injury from car accidents
Each year, more than 2 million people are injured in a car accident. If you or another person cannot get out of the car after an accident or if you experience any pain, discomfort, dizziness, numbness or suffering whatsoever, call 911. Though you don’t feel the injury is severe, still call 911. Symptoms may appear shortly after the accident, so it’s best not to chance it. The paramedics at the scene can determine whether or not you need further medical attention.

12.  Asthma attack
Signs and symptoms of an asthma attack include wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, trouble talking and chest tightness. If you suspect an asthma attack has become serious, or if an inhaler isn’t on hand, call 911. 

13.  Sudden blindness
If you or a loved one experiences sudden vision loss — whether it’s your peripheral vision, central vision or just a blurring of your vision — call 911 immediately, as it could signal a stroke or other serious medical condition. Sudden vision loss can occur in one or both eyes, and it can include a partial or total loss of sight. Don’t delay in calling for emergency help; doing so can cause permanent damage or worse.

Although these potentially frightening symptoms can vary greatly from person to person, try to stay calm. Use these general guidelines to help you determine what condition you might be experiencing.

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