When you have an emergency, such as a serious accident, symptoms of a heart attack, or an older loved one who has become delusional and violent, you need emergency care. This type of care can be provided by paramedics when you call 911 or in an emergency room if you are able to drive there or once you arrive in an ambulance. Emergency care can be expensive, but it is also necessary. It plays an important role in preventing deaths and limiting disabilities in many situations.

What Is Emergency Care?

Emergency care is immediate medical or psychiatric care that is available 24 hours a day in an emergency room or department that is either stand-alone, or more often, part of a hospital or medical center. Emergency care is typically reserved for severe illnesses or injuries, or any medical need that is life-threatening. Because most emergency rooms are part of a hospital, they have not just after-hours care, but also offer a wide range of care types and the ability to transfer patients to other departments for more specialized care, like surgery or diagnostic tests.

When to Choose Emergency Care

In some instances, emergency care is the obvious choice. When someone is showing the signs of a heart attack or stroke, or there has been a serious accident causing major injuries, calling for emergency care is often done without much thought. In other situations it may not be as obvious, and you may wonder whether you need emergency care, urgent care, or if you can wait a day or two to see your regular doctor.

You also have two choices when it comes to accessing emergency care. You can call 911 to have paramedics or EMTs come to you, or you can drive or have someone drive you to the emergency room. Here are some examples of situations in which it is best to call 911:

  • Choking and/or difficulty breathing
  • A head injury followed by fainting or confusion
  • A neck or spine injury
  • Severe burns
  • Electric shocks
  • A seizure lasting longer than a few minutes
  • Severe pressure or pain in the chest

There are also situations in which you may drive yourself or someone else to the emergency room rather than calling for emergency care. This makes sense when the need for care is urgent but not life-threatening, but in these situations you should always call 911 if in doubt of the urgency of the medical situation:

  • An infant or child with a high fever
  • When someone is fainting
  • When someone is having trouble breathing
  • If there is pain in the upper arm or in the jaw
  • A sudden and severe headache
  • Any severe pain
  • A serious burn or wound
  • A suspected broken bone
  • When someone is seriously ill, vomiting or having diarrhea that does not stop
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Seizures
  • Coughing up blood
  • A high fever that doesn’t get better after taking medications

Urgent care is a good choice for many situations in which you might automatically assume you need emergency care. Most urgent care facilities are open later and on weekends and have diagnostic capabilities. Most appealingly, the care provided here is cheaper than in an emergency room. However, if you feel your situation is an emergency, you should skip urgent care and head to the emergency room.

If you are unsure whether or not to choose emergency care, it may be best to go to the emergency room than to not go and suffer the consequences. Another option is to call your doctor’s office for advice. If it is after office hours your call should be transferred to a medical expert, such as a nurse, who can answer your questions and advise you on whether or not you need emergency care.

Psychiatric Emergencies

Not all care emergencies are medical. Sometimes they are psychiatric, but these can be just as serious as a physical medical emergency. A psychiatric issue is an emergency when the person in question poses a risk to others or to himself or herself. An unfortunately common psychiatric emergency is suicide. If you are feeling suicidal, or you suspect someone you care about is, consider it an emergency and get help.

Other psychiatric emergencies include psychosis, when a person loses touch with reality and is hallucinating or is delusional, or violence. In the case of psychosis, a person may cause harm to themselves or to those around them. A panic attack is not necessarily an emergency, but it can feel like a heart attack, so it often leads to emergency care. Psychiatric emergencies can be managed in any emergency room, but patients are then often transferred to psychiatric hospitals.

Be Prepared for Emergency Care

In an emergency you may not have time to prepare. You are likely to call 911 or to head to the emergency room without thinking about details. It helps to prepare now for the possibility that you or a loved one will need emergency care at some point. If you or your loved one has any ongoing health conditions or is taking medications, have a list prepared of what those are so that you can easily hand it to a paramedic or emergency room nurse or doctor. Have all necessary insurance information prepared and stored with that list.

Also have a list of important phone numbers ready, including your doctor’s office number, emergency numbers for poisonings, suicides, and other specific situations, your insurance company’s number, and the numbers for urgent care clinics. Know where emergency rooms and urgent care clinics are in your area so you don’t have to look them up in an emergency. You may also want to have the number of a nurse advice line on hand. Your insurance company may have one of these lines available so that you can get informed advice any time of day.

You may have questions about whether or not to choose emergency care, but when in doubt it is better to do what makes you feel comfortable. Don’t be afraid to seek emergency care if you feel it is needed. It may be a more expensive option for care, but it is often necessary and can prevent fatalities, severe illness, or disability or disfiguration. Know your care options and know how to get emergency help if you or a family member really needs it.