When you need emergency care

Many people do not know when they should go to the emergency department (ED) for a health issue and when they do not need emergency care.

December 19, 2022  

A medical emergency is a health issue that threatens your life or could cause permanent damage to your health. Here are examples of health emergencies* that need immediate attention. 

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Severe chest pain or pressure
  • Palpitations or fluttering in your heart
  • Choking
  • Severe bleeding
  • Suddenly not being able to move or speak 
  • Suddenly not being able to feel an arm or leg
  • Blacking out (fainting)`
  • Poisoning
  • Coughing or vomiting blood
  • Severe or persistent vomiting or diarrhea
  • Changes in mental status, such as confusion or unusual behavior
  • Difficulty walking
  • Changes in vision
  • Sudden onset of the "worst headache of your life"
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Thoughts of harming another person
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Severe burns
  • Broken bones
  • Deep cuts

*This is not a complete list.

When you face these or other emergencies, take the following steps:

1.  Go to the nearest ED

  • Call 911 or use the nearest ED or hospital
    • Call an ambulance if you need it 
  • Call 911 if: 
    • You cannot get to the ED right away
    • You are unable to take yourself or have someone else take you
    • It is not safe for you to move 

2.  Call your PCP after the emergency care (within 24 hours of going to the ED)

  • Tell your PCP about the emergency
  • Have someone call for you if you are unable to call yourself
  • Go to your PCP or specialist (not the ED) for any follow-up care

When it’s not an emergency

If your condition is not an emergency but you need care, follow these steps:

  • Call your PCP’s office, even if it’s after hours or on the weekend
    • Call your health plan and ask the name of your PCP if you don’t know who your PCP is
    • Have someone call for you if you are unable to call yourself
  • Follow your PCP’s advice. You may be told to see your PCP right away or your PCP may suggest that you go to an urgent care center or the ED. If you do not have a PCP, try visiting an urgent care center or walk-in clinic.