Emergency Room: How to Know If You Should Go

December 12, 2013

The busy holiday season brings cheer, joy and, unfortunately, a greater possibility of illness and accident. In fact, according to data from the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey, emergency room visits increase 20 to 30 percent during the holidays. In a time when the emergency room is overly crowded with holiday fiascos, it’s important to know when a household first aid kit can suffice, says Deborah K. Arnold, M.S.N., RN, assistant professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Nursing.

Avoid ER wait times this holiday season by following these tips.

Avoid ER wait times this holiday season by following these tips.

“You should become familiar with the symptoms of common injuries before you go to the ER,” Arnold says. “That way you’ll know if a trip is necessary or not.”

When not to go:

1. Small cuts and burns

For a cut less than ¼ inch deep, apply pressure to stop the bleeding, use an antiseptic to kill germs and then cover with a bandage. For burns smaller than two inches, use cool water and aloe vera to remove heat from the wound.

2. Sprained appendage that you can bear weight on

If you tweak or sprain a bone, but are still able to bear weight, apply an ice compress and elevate the area above the heart. You can also take acetaminophen or Ibuprofen to reduce swelling and pain.

3. Common allergies or cold symptoms

If you are experiencing allergies, a sore throat, a cough or cold symptoms, there isn’t much a doctor can do for you. It’s best to stay inside, stay warm and allow your body to rest.

“You should also stay hydrated and use honey in place of cough medicine,” says Arnold. “If you have a fever that doesn’t go away with over-the-counter medicine, go to a family practitioner or urgent care center as soon as possible.”


When to go:

 1. Loss of consciousness

If you lose consciousness for any reason, you should go to the ER immediately. Call an ambulance or have someone else drive you to ensure your safety and the safety of others on the road.

2. Heart attack symptoms

Should you feel pressure, fullness or a crushing pain in the center of your chest, visit the ER immediately. Other possible symptoms include difficulty breathing or lightheadedness.

3. Stroke symptoms

If you suddenly have weakness, numbness, vision loss, difficulty speaking, or paralysis on one side of the body, seek emergency care immediately. 

4. Fevers that do not go down with over-the-counter medications

If you have a fever that is above 105°F, take Ibuprofen or acetaminophen. If you have taken medicine but your fever is still high, that’s when you should seek medical attention.

5. An insect bite or sting

If your lips or throat swell, breathing becomes difficult, or a rash appears, check for any medications you may have to treat the attack, then seek medical attention.

6. A broken bone

If the bone appears out of place or you are unable to bear weight, go to the ER immediately. 

7. A severe burn

If the burn is larger than two inches, breaks the skin or causes numbness, seek emergency attention. 

8. Poisoning

If you suspect you have ingested a poisonous substance, contact the poison control hotline immediately at 1-800-222-1222.

“If you’re still not sure whether you should go to the ER or stay home, call your doctor and ask,” says Arnold. “If you can’t reach them, you should go to the emergency room. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.” 

— Kendall Cherry

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