Recognizing a Medical Emergency

Warning Signs

According to the American College of Emergency Physicians, the following are warning signs of a medical emergency:

  • Bleeding that will not stop
  • Breathing problems (difficulty breathing, shortness of breath)
  • Change in mental status (such as unusual behavior, confusion, difficulty arousing)
  • Chest pain
  • Choking
  • Coughing up or vomiting blood
  • Fainting or loss of consciousness
  • Feeling of committing suicide or murder
  • Head or spine injury
  • Severe or persistent vomiting
  • Sudden injury due to a motor vehicle accident, burns or smoke inhalation, near drowning, deep or large wound, etc.
  • Sudden, severe pain anywhere in the body
  • Sudden dizziness, weakness, or change in vision
  • Swallowing a poisonous substance
  • Upper abdominal pain or pressure

Be Prepared

  • Determine the location and quickest route to the nearest emergency department before an emergency happens.
  • Get a personal emergency response system if you are elderly, especially if you live alone.
  • Keep emergency phone numbers posted by the phone. Everyone in your household, including children, should know when and how to call these numbers. These numbers include:
    • Ambulance center
    • Contact numbers for neighbors or nearby friends or relatives
    • Fire department
    • Poison control center
    • Police department police
    • Work phone numbers
    • Your doctors’ phone numbers
  • Know at which hospital(s) your doctor practices and, if practical, go there in an emergency.
  • Wear a medical identification tag if you have a chronic condition or look for one on a person who has any of the symptoms mentioned.

What to Do if Someone Needs Help

  • Place a semiconscious or unconscious person in the recovery position until the ambulance arrives. do not move the person, however, if there has been or may have been a neck injury.
  • Remain calm, and call your local emergency number (such as 911)
  • Start Cardiopulmonary resuscitation or rescue breathing, if necessary and if you know the proper technique.
  • Upon arriving at an emergency room, the person will be immediately evaluated. Life- or limb-threatening conditions will be treated first. Persons with conditions that are not life- or limb-threatening may have to wait.


U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health