When should I go to the emergency department
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An African-American man clutches his chest while sitting on his livingroom sofa.

When a serious unexpected illness or injury strikes, you may wonder whether you should seek treatment at the Emergency Department, visit an urgent care clinic, or schedule a visit with your primary care provider.

Seeking care amidst the COVID-19 pandemic adds a layer of confusion, as many people are hesitant to come to the hospital for fear of exposure to the virus, even if they need immediate medical attention. But, waiting too late to seek emergency care could result in medical complications, long-term disability, or even death.

Serious symptoms warrant a visit to the ED.

Anytime you’re experiencing a time-sensitive medical emergency, you should go to the Emergency Department (ED) where healthcare providers are trained to deliver life-saving treatment for critical conditions that require fast responses. If your condition ends up being less serious than you thought, it’s better to get checked out and cleared rather than to delay necessary care and experience the opposite.

The following symptoms warrant emergency care at the ED instead of an urgent care or telemedicine visit.

Do you know signs of medical conditions that warrant a visit to the #ED? Expert Dr. Scruggs shares when you shouldn’t delay #emergency care on the #MedStarHealth blog: https://bit.ly/3gnTdiH.

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Chest pain, which may indicate a heart attack.

Severe chest pain or a feeling of your chest being squeezed or full could be a sign that a heart attack is imminent. A heart attack is a medical emergency that requires immediate care because the more time that passes, the more your heart is at risk for sustaining permanent damage. The sooner you seek treatment, the better your chances of medical interventions reversing the effects of a heart attack.

The American Heart Association suggests that other signs of a heart attack may include:

  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Pain in the back, jaw, neck, or stomach
  • Lightheadedness

If you think you may be having a heart attack, call 911 immediately so you don’t delay care that could save your life.

Stroke signs, including vision problems, dizziness, slurred speech, or a feeling of numbness in one or both arms.

Like a heart attack, strokes are serious conditions that can be deadlier than COVID-19. If you experience any warning signs of a stroke, time is of the essence. During a stroke, a clot or plaque buildup blocks blood flow to the brain and heart which means that the longer you wait to seek care, the greater your risk of permanent disability or death.

Fortunately, if you call 911 immediately upon experiencing symptoms, a trained emergency medical services (EMS) team can begin treating you while rapidly transporting you to the ED. Stroke treatment is more effective and safer the earlier it’s used, so when it comes to strokes, every minute counts.

Even if you think the symptoms are minor or could suggest a mini-stroke, known as a transient ischemic attack (TIA), don’t hesitate to call 911. A TIA could be an early sign that a larger stroke looms ahead.

Learn more about the signs of a stroke.

High, persistent fever or trouble breathing.

If you have mild COVID-19 symptoms, you most likely don’t need emergency care, although you may benefit from connecting with your primary care provider via a video visit. However, if you have a high fever, shortness of breath, and/or other chronic conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, or asthma, you should seek care at the ED.

And, if you have a child under three months with a fever of any kind, you should seek an evaluation in the emergency room. A high fever in a young child could be a sign of a serious, life-threatening infection.

Other signs of a serious medical condition.

In addition to the symptoms above, there may be other signs of significant medical problems that benefit from emergency treatment. If you’re involved in a major accident for example, whether it’s a car crash, a bad fall, or a gunshot wound, you should visit the ED for immediate treatment.

Other symptoms that may warrant a trip to the ED include:

  • Heavy bleeding that doesn’t stop
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Localized abdominal pain
  • Bleeding or trauma during pregnancy
  • And more

It’s important to know that this is not an all-inclusive list. If you think you may be experiencing a medical emergency, it’s always better to seek care at the ED than wait for symptoms to pass, especially if you’re unsure if they’re life-threatening. 

Whether you’re experiencing signs of a heart attack or stroke, or you sustained injuries after an accident, don’t delay emergency care that could save your life.

The Emergency Department at MedStar Southern Maryland Hospital Center is here to help the community.

Click the link below to learn more about the facility and the care we provide.

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