When a health problem strikes, some people head right to the nearest emergency room. And the wait – oftentimes hours upon hours – is hardly a pleasant one. The over-crowded rooms can be filled with crying babies, moaning people and other unpleasant things (think injuries, contagious illnesses and worse) you’d rather not witness.  

Surveys in 2007 and 2010 showed that approximately 20 percent of adults in the U.S. had used the emergency room in the past 12 months, rather than seek out less expensive outpatient or office-based care, due to rising health care costs.  It’s more likely that uninsured adults, rather than the ones with private health insurance or a public health plan to visit the ER because they simply have no other place to go.

So, should you practice being a good citizen and avoid the ER so that people who really need it get help? Yes, if it’s a condition that can easily be treated at a doctor’s office or outside medical clinic.

But there are other times when you need treatment fast – when getting immediate care can make all the difference. There’s that short window of time that once closed, will diminish the chances of successfully treating your problem. If you think the problem is life-threatening or could get worse on the way to the hospital, don’t drive yourself; instead, call 911 immediately.

1. Stroke

When a stroke hits, brain cells die – two million every minute. The result? Permanent paralysis or the loss of the ability to speak. There’s a drug known as tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) that can quickly dissolve the blood clot that causes an ischemic stroke, but it must be dispensed within 3 to 4-1/2 hours in order to help. If there’s a sudden onset of weakness or numbness in the face, arm or leg; slurred speech or loss of balance, don’t waste a minute – call 911 immediately.

2. Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. 

3. Chest or upper abdominal pain or pressure. 

4. Changes in vision. 

5. Any sudden or severe pain. 

6. Uncontrolled bleeding. 

7. Severe or persistent vomiting or diarrhea. 

8. Coughing or vomiting blood. 

9. Suicidal feelings. 

Your ER Checklist

Sure, emergencies often strike unexpectedly, and who has time to pack or prepare? That’s why it’s good to know some things you can have on hand well in advance – just in case. 

The American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) suggests the following:

Post emergency numbers on all your telephones. Also make sure your children know how to call for help.

Read this next: Are You Having Too Many Medical Tests?

Organize your family’s medical information. Keep up-to-date medical history forms for each family member in your home, car and wallet. Bring the forms you need when you go to the ER.  The forms contain information on medical conditions, allergies, medications and contact information for your doctors. To print out forms, go to www.emergencycareforyou.org/medications.

In Case Of Emergency (“ICE”). Add these entries to your cell phone address book. If you are unconscious when you arrive in the ER, the staff will know to check your cell phone for contact information.

Keep well-stocked first aid kits in your home and car.

For a home first aid kit, go to www.emergencycareforyou.org/homesafety

For a traveler’s first aid kit, go to www.emergencycareforyou.org/travelsafety 


Sheryl Kraft’s work has appeared in various print and online publications including AARP, Prevention, WebMD, Woman’s Day, Everyday Health, Grandparents.com, HealthyWomen.org, Senior Planet, JAMA, Weight Watchers, Bottom Line/Health, Bottom Line/Women’s Health, Caring Today, Westchester Magazine and more. She lives in her empty nest with her husband, Alan, and enjoys weekly Sunday visits from her two hungry 26 and 28-year-old sons (who also occasionally bring a load of laundry). When she's not working, Sheryl enjoys exercising, reading, walking and biking the neighborhood, seeing Broadway shows and spending time with friends. Visit Sheryl's website at www.sherylkraft.com or her two blogs, MySoCalledMidlilfe and Midlife Matters.