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Recognizing medical emergencies

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


  • Determine the location and quickest route to the nearest emergency department before an emergency happens.
  • 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: fire department, police department, poison control center, ambulance center, your doctors' phone numbers, contact numbers of neighbors or nearby friends or relatives, and work 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.
  • Get a personal emergency response system if you are elderly, especially if you live alone.


  • Remain calm, and call your local emergency number (such as 911).
  • Start CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) or rescue breathing, if necessary and if you know the proper technique.
  • 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.

Upon arriving at an emergency room, the person will be immediately evaluated. Life- or limb-threatening conditions will be treated first. People with conditions that are not life- or limb-threatening may have to wait.


  • The person's condition is life-threatening (for example, the person is having a heart attack or severe allergic reaction)
  • The person's condition could become life-threatening on the way to the hospital
  • Moving the person could cause further injury (for example, in case of a neck injury or motor vehicle accident)
  • The person needs the skills or equipment of paramedics
  • Traffic conditions or distance might cause a delay in getting the person to the hospital

Alternative Names

Medical emergencies - how to recognize them


Marx JA, Hockberger RS, Walls RM, et al, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 190.

Update Date 1/13/2015

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