O ALLEVIATE waiting lines in the emergency room, the American College of Emergency Physicians has released a list of 10 warning signs that indicate medical emergencies.
When people experience these symptoms, or see others exhibiting them, they shouldn't think twice about heading to their nearest emergency department.
ACEP cautions that children may display different symptoms than adults and recommends that parents seek medical help in the closest ER if they think their child is having a medical emergency.
ACEP recommends all patients bring a list of medications, allergies and immunizations to the ER, to help them be treated more quickly. If symptoms worsen while waiting in the emergency room, notify a nurse or doctor.
To learn more about the 10 signs of a medical emergency, we talked to Dr. Richard O'Brien, an ER physician in Scranton, Pa.
CHEST OR UPPER ABDOMINAL PAIN OR PRESSURE
Chest pain can be a sign of many serious problems, including a dissection of the aorta, an aneurysm or a pulmonary embolism (potentially fatal blood clot).
Upper abdominal pain can stem from pancreatitis, an ulcer or kidney stones. All should be checked out fast.
DIFFICULTY BREATHING, SHORTNESS OF BREATH
"It's a real red flag," O'Brien said of this symptom.
It can indicate heart disease, lung disease, an allergic reaction, shock or an exacerbation of conditions such as asthma or emphysema.
"I think that's at the top of the list because it is so common and it can be so devastating," O'Brien said. "There are people who are having heart attacks and just present with shortness of breath and don't have chest pains."
FAINTING, SUDDEN DIZZINESS, WEAKNESS
These "catch-all" symptoms can be signs of problems in the brain, heart, lungs or major blood vessels, or could signal an infection, O'Brien said.
"A lot of minor things can cause it, too--it could just be the flu," O'Brien said. "But we're not very good at self-diagnosing."
CHANGES IN VISION
This needs to be checked out because it can be a symptom of a stroke or problem in the nervous system. It can also signify serious eye problems.
"Especially if it's associated with pain in the eye, it could be something in the eye like dirt or a bug," O'Brien said. "But it could be acute glaucoma, which can cost you your vision."
CONFUSION OR CHANGES IN MENTAL STATUS
These can be signs of a stroke, or of a mini-stroke, symptoms of which might go away.
"But if you've had one, it's more likely that you'll have another," O'Brien said. "That's a major warning sign."
Confusion can also be a sign of trauma, an infection, problems associated with diabetes or a seizure.
ANY SUDDEN OR SEVERE PAIN
"That's a sign of loads of things," O'Brien said.
A common example: kidney stones. "You're absolutely fine, and then, bang, you're not."
"If you have a wound bleeding uncontrollably, you go to the hospital," O'Brien said.
This is especially important for people who take blood thinners such as aspirin that can cause wounds to bleed more severely.
SEVERE OR PERSISTENT VOMITING OR DIARRHEA
These often signal dehydration, especially in the very young and very old.
They're worrisome because, as O'Brien said, "Your body needs fluids to stay alive."
COUGHING OR VOMITING BLOOD
Coughing up blood can be a sign of a pulmonary embolism. It can also be a sign of something more minor, such as a nosebleed. But O'Brien said he would definitely err on the side of caution and seek quick medical attention.
"I would take that symptom pretty seriously," he said.
SUICIDAL OR HOMICIDAL FEELINGS
"When you come to the hospital and say something about hurting yourself, we take that very seriously," O'Brien said. "That is never, ever taken lightly."
People at highest risk for suicide include older males, especially those who live alone and have little social contact. Women are more likely to attempt suicide, O'Brien said, but not as likely to complete it.
"If somebody tells you they're having that kind of feeling, drop what you are doing and get them to the hospital."