You know how to handle a minor scrape at home, and you know heart attack symptoms should send you to the emergency room. But can you tell if a swollen ankle requires an ice pack or a 911 call? To the rescue: our handy guide to when to head to the ER, when to call your doctor, and when you can stay put.
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Go to the ER if you have: Heart attack symptoms
Women are less likely to have the stereotypical chest, left arm, or jaw pain, so you should also look for other symptoms women get, like shortness of breath; sudden dizziness, weakness, or nausea; or unexplained sweating and fatigue.
Go to the ER if you have: Signs of stroke ...like sudden numbness or weakness in a limb or one side of your face; sudden speech difficulties (such as talking gibberish or jumbling words); trouble seeing out of one or both eyes; unexpected dizziness or loss of balance; or an excruciating, inexplicable headache.
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Go to the ER if you have: A blow to the head
...that results in loss of consciousness, a seizure, or vomiting (especially if you vomit more than once), even if it happens a few hours after you hit your head.
Go to the ER if you have: Any loss of consciousness or fainting ...even if you think it’s just because you haven’t eaten all day. It might be nothing, but it could also signal a heart or circulation problem
or even a stroke. "There’s no way to determine the cause on your own," says emergency physician Richard O’Brien, MD, an associate professor in the division of medicine in the department of clinical sciences at the Commonwealth Medical College of Pennsylvania.
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Go to the ER if you have: A possible broken bone
Red flags include a joint or limb that looks drastically misshapen or out of place, swelling and bruising, and not being able to bear weight on an injured foot or leg. (If you suspect it might just be a sprain or dislocation, call your doc.)
Go to the ER if you have: Bleeding ...that doesn’t stop when you apply pressure for 10 to 20 minutes; any wound that impairs your ability to function (like a leg injury that bleeds like crazy when you bend your knee); or a gaping wound that fully penetrates the skin (so you can see muscle, for example).
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Go to the ER if you have: Sudden disorientation or confusion
...like not knowing where you are. This could be a sign of stroke, seizure, dehydration, or other major problems.
Go to the ER if you have: A serious burn ...that covers an area larger than 2 or 3 inches or goes all the way around an area like the wrist; breaks the outer layer of skin; or causes numbness.
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Go to the ER if you have: Repeated episodes of vomiting
...that make it impossible to keep fluids down, or nonstop diarrhea that keeps you in the bathroom, either of which can quickly lead to dehydration.
Go to the ER if you have: Severe pain ...halfway down your back on either side of your spine, which could signal a kidney stone or infection. "Any severe abdominal pain also warrants immediate care," Dr. O’Brien says. Ectopic pregnancy, appendicitis, and gallstones are a
few of the possible causes.
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Call your doc if you have: A bite or puncture wound
You may need antibiotics or a tetanus shot. Head to the ER if it’s a jagged wound.
Call your doc if you have: An unexplained fever ...that can’t be controlled with acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Your doc can advise you on how to bring the fever down (or determine if you need to go to the ER). If your fever is 105 degrees or higher, head straight to the ER.
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Call your doc if you have: A skin abscess or infection
...that’s greater than the size of a dime with
an area around it that’s red and swollen. "It could be cellulitis, which requires antibiotics," says Michael Carius, MD, chairman of the emergency department at Norwalk Hospital in Norwalk, Connecticut, and past president of the American College of Emergency Physicians.
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Break out the first-aid kit for: A mild head injury
...that produces a bump on your head or moderate pain. Ice and/or over-the-counter
pain relievers can help. But if you develop an excruciating headache, vomiting, confusion, difficulty walking or talking, balance or speech problems, or have trouble using your arms or legs normally, go to the ER, Dr. O’Brien says.
Break out the first-aid kit for: Shallow cuts ...that are less than 1/2-inch long and aren’t bleeding much. "Clean it, push the skin back together, and apply a Steri-Strip or an adhesive bandage," Dr. Carius advises.
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Break out the first-aid kit for: Minor burns
These are less than 3 inches in diameter and don’t break the skin, even if they blister. Soothe the burn with cold compresses for 20 minutes, then apply antibacterial ointment and cover it with nonstick gauze.
Break out the first-aid kit for: Mild sprains ...that don’t significantly impede your ability to function (meaning you can still walk on that leg or move that arm, even if it hurts). Follow the RICE advice: Rest the injured area, apply ice, compress
the injury with an elastic bandage, and elevate it above your heart.
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