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Sharp Health News

The 411 on when to call 911

Feb. 11, 2016

When to call 911

If your house is on fire, or if you witness a crime in progress or a car accident — especially one where someone is injured — it is obvious: You call 911.

In the case of medical emergencies, however, it may not be as clear when you should call for emergency services, and when you shouldn't.

A medical emergency is a sudden and severe injury or illness that poses an immediate risk to a person's life or long-term health. To help you decide if you should call 911, answer these questions:

  • Is the condition life- or limb-threatening?
  • Could the condition worsen quickly on the way to the hospital?
  • If you move the victim, will it cause further injury?
  • Does the person need skills or equipment right away that paramedics or an EMT carry?
  • Would distance or traffic cause a delay in getting the person to the hospital?

If the answer is yes to any of these, call 911.

In addition to the questions above, if you are (or someone else is) experiencing any of the following, call 911 immediately:

  • Allergic reaction, especially if there is any difficulty breathing
  • Bleeding from any wound that won't stop with direct pressure
  • Chest pain
  • Choking
  • Difficulty speaking, numbness or weakness of any part of the body
  • New severe headache
  • Poisoning or drug overdose
  • Severe burns
  • Severe difficulty breathing, especially if it does not improve with rest
  • Someone is threatening to hurt or kill themselves or someone else
  • Sudden blindness or vision changes
  • Sudden dizziness, weakness or mental changes (confusion, very odd behavior, difficulty walking)
  • Sudden intense pain
  • You witness someone faint or pass out, or see that someone is unresponsive

You should not call 911 for the following:

  • For your pet
  • Minor illness or injury not requiring immediate help
  • Routine visits to medical offices, clinics or hospitals
  • When the power is out
  • When your water pipes burst or there is flooding

"If you are not sure if it is a medical emergency, call 911 and a trained dispatcher can advise you," says Dr. Kevin Kelly, an emergency physician at Sharp Memorial Hospital. "It is better to be on the safe side. When in doubt, call."

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