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  • Writer's pictureRachel Ogilby

When Should I Go To The Emergency Room?

Updated: Jan 6, 2021

Many people get confused when they should go to the Emergency Room or simply make a doctor’s appointment. There are many misunderstandings on resources the Emergency Room (ER) has and who they are meant for! Read on to learn expert advice on where you should go depending on your illness or injury. Feel free to print this out for family or friends!

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The following information was generously shared with us by skilled and knowledgeable Suzanne Fortuna, DNP, APRN-BC, CNS, BC, FNP-BC, previous Emergency Room Clinical Nurse Specialist at a Level 1 Trauma Center.

When should I go to the Emergency Room?

You should immediately go to the ER if you have any of these injuries or symptoms:

  • Chest pain

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Excessive bleeding not controlled with pressure

  • Gunshot wound, assault, or stabbing

  • Changes in mental status or confusion

  • Suicidal or homicidal intentions

  • Pain that is not controlled with home medications

  • Fall with injury

  • Lose consciousness

  • Broken bone or bones

  • Receive chemotherapy and have a high fever.

Call 911 if you cannot safely get to the Emergency Room on your own or quickly.

For other illnesses, you can likely visit a quick clinic (such as CVS, Drug Mart, Express Care) or make a telehealth visit (more on these locations below).

What can I expect when I get to the Emergency Room?

Expect a wait time, depending on how many other people are in the ER (as well as how sick they are). Some ERs are considered Level 1 Trauma Centers (levels indicate how many resources a hospital has for trauma patients – Level 1 being the most resources). Since no one can plan for a trauma, one can appear at any time and may need many resources of the ER. This can increase waiting time.

If you need emergency care on arrival, be assured that you will be seen based on your present problem as quick as possible or necessary.

If you believe you have an illness that might be contagious (such as measles, chicken pox, or COVID-19 exposure), call the ER before you get there if you can. They will give you proper instructions on what to do when you arrive. If you can’t let the ER know in advance, let the first person you meet know if you are concerned you may be contagious. Avoid close contact to others until your evaluated.

If you need an interpreter, ask for one immediately. It is not ideal to have a family member translate medical information.

If the Emergency Room you visit is part of a teaching hospital, you may be asked some of the same questions several times by different people. Try to be patient and understand that the more your care team hears the same information from you, the less likely they are to miss something important. They want to make sure they hear everything you have to say about your health and well-being.

The ER is a very busy place. Please be patient and courteous during your stay. There is no tolerance for violence to others or the staff, including verbal and nonverbal behaviors.

Who should come to the ER with me?

Since the ER is very busy, only bring other people that are essential to your communication ability or care, such as a licensed caregiver or a parent/guardian.

If you have children that do not need to be seen in the ER, leave them home with a caregiver. If this is not possible, bring any items for their care, such as hygiene or nutritional needs. The ER cannot provide items for them unless they are a patient. Please also consider that your children will need someone to supervise them if you’re unable to.

What should I bring?

There are a few important things that you should have on hand.

Bring these forms or documents:

  • Picture ID

  • Insurance card

  • Guardianship paperwork (if applicable)

  • Power of attorney paperwork (if applicable)

  • Adoption or ward of county-paperwork (including county contact name and phone number if applicable)

Bring these medications or lists of information:

  • A list of all medications (you can bring the medications with you if you’d like, but be sure you have all of them. Include any over-the-counter (OTC) medications, like Advil or Motrin, and supplements, such as multivitamins). Know when you last took these medications and time of your last meal or drink.

  • Specialty or compounded medications. Most hospital pharmacies arrange delivery of medication to you. If you take a rare or special medication, some pharmacies have to make it - which may take some time. Bring your own specialty medications to avoid missing doses in case you are admitted to the hospital.

  • A list of allergies and the reactions to the allergies

  • Inform us if you have a latex allergy or if you’ve ever been told to keep an Epi pen with you (also if you’ve ever needed it, for what allergy, and when did you need it last).

  • Any food allergies

Bring these personal items:

  • A change of clothes or minor personal items in case you need to stay overnight

  • Your Bipap or Cpap machine if you use one regularly and are coming to the ER for difficulty breathing

  • Special shoes or equipment – if you can’t bring your own, tell the hospital staff so they can try to get you these items (tube feeds, canes, walkers, etc.)

  • If you have special dietary needs, bring an appropriate snack

If you are a caregiver for children or elderly, arrange for after school pick up or overnight care, as well as help with elderly care needs.

Leave any weapons or sharp objects at home, as many ERs use a security scanner upon arrival.

Will the hospital give me a ride home after I’m seen in the ER?

No. You must arrange transportation home independently. Public transportation is a great option and often how many of our patients get to the Emergency Room. You may also return home this way.

Another option is to ask a community/church member or friend/family member for help. Some hospitals have transportation for true emergencies, but please do not assume someone who works at the hospital will pay to get you home.

When should I go to an urgent care?

Go to a “quick clinic” or urgent care-type location for these symptoms:

  • Rashes

  • Cold symptoms with fever for more than several days

  • Minor/moderate cuts or wounds that appear infected (drainage, foul smell, with or without fever)

  • Mild asthma exacerbation (without fever or accessory muscle use)

  • Minor foreign bodies or tick removal

  • Mild sprains, strains, or swelling of joints or extremities

  • Mild to moderate pain symptoms that are not controlled with OTC medications

  • Mild bleeding not controlled easily with pressure

When should I use telehealth for an appointment?

Telehealth appointments have become more popular than ever with COVID-19 affecting our transportation and in-person visits. A telehealth visit might be an appointment over the phone or by video. Use a telehealth visit for these symptoms:

  • Medication refill (if you’ve had a face to face appointment in last 3-6 months – otherwise the doctor or APRN may ask you to physically come in for an appointment)

  • Minor cold symptoms, such as runny nose, congestion, sore throat, cough

  • Minor fever controlled with OTC but lasting more than 3-5 days

  • Behavior or mental health check – routine, not for acute episodes or situations

  • Non-emergent needs between clinic visits or changes in condition as directed by your doctor or APRN

  • Baseline chronic condition management (or communication of changes that are not life threatening or severe)

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