When is the Emergency Department the Right Choice?   

When is the Emergency Department the Right Choice?

Emergency care
Clinical Contributors to this story:
Bradley Pulver, M.D.
Do you know where to go in a medical emergency? And do you know how to recognize one?

As the number of urgent care locations grows, so does the convenience of receiving medical attention. However, it’s important to know where to go based on the situation at hand.

“Urgent care centers are a convenient choice if you’ve got a minor injury or illness, such as the flu, minor cuts or an animal bite, and you can’t wait to see your doctor,” says emergency medicine physician, Bradley Pulver, M.D. “However, when you have a life-threatening medical situation, you should visit an Emergency Department.”

Read on for examples of when you should head to the nearest Emergency Department.

The Problem: COVID-19 Symptoms

When to go: According to the CDC, emergency warning signs that warrant immediate medical attention include*:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion or inability to arouse
  • Bluish lips or face.
  • *This list is not all inclusive. Please consult your medical provider for any other symptoms that are severe or concerning.

If possible, call an Emergency Department before arriving to explain your symptoms. They will ensure the proper care is taken to minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19 upon your arrival.

The Problem: Chest pain

When to Go: If you feel chest pain, it could be a heart attack. Call 911 immediately if you have chest pain and:

  • Have discomfort in the middle of your chest that lasts more than a few minutes or that goes away and comes back
  • Experience chest pain that feels like squeezing, fullness or uncomfortable pressure
  • Feel consistent pain or discomfort in your arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach
  • Have shortness of breath
  • Feel light-headed
  • Are nauseous

The Problem: Sudden onset of visual or balance problems

When to Go: Head to the Emergency Department immediately — especially if these symptoms are accompanied by:

  • Face drooping
  • Arm weakness
  • Speech difficulty

These are all signs of stroke. The faster you call 911 and get to the Emergency Department, the more likely you are to prevent long-term effects from stroke.

The Problem: Allergic reaction

When to Go: Head to the Emergency Department if your allergic reaction is severe and you experience:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Hives
  • Swelling

The Problem: High fever

When to Go: Get emergency or immediate medical help if:

  • Elderly or immunocompromised adults have a fever over 101.
  • You have a fever of 103 with other symptoms (shortness of breath, weakness, cough, etc.)
  • You have a temperature of 105 or higher with no other symptoms.
  • Children younger than 3 months have a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher.
  • Children are having seizures, cannot be awakened easily, cannot walk or are having trouble breathing during a fever, or their fever lasts more than a few days.

The Problem: Flu-like symptoms

When to Go: In most cases, you should stay home and avoid other people if you have the flu. But head to the Emergency Department if you have these emergency warning signs:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Sudden dizziness
  • Severe or continued vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
  • Flu-like symptoms that improve but return with fever and worse cough

Unsure if its an emergency?

Don’t delay seeking help if you think there’s a chance your symptoms pose an emergency. “Getting prompt treatment can make all the difference in your chances for recovery,” says Dr. Pulver.

Concerned about COVID-19?

Our Emergency Departments are ready to deal with any emergency amid the coronavirus outbreak. We’re taking every precaution to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to patients who come to the hospital for severe or life-threatening illnesses. Hackensack Meridian Health hospitals are testing all admitted patients for COVID-19, including patients admitted from the Emergency Department as an inpatient or observation case.

When it's not an emergency, but you still need help. 

For minor illnesses, consider visiting a local urgent care facility or clinic or scheduling a virtual physician consultation.

Local retail clinics and urgent care facilities typically provide health screenings for fever, flu, strep throat, bronchitis, urinary tract infection, travel medicine, viral infections and immunizations. At many of these facilities you will receive care from nurse practitioners with physician oversight. In some cases, you can even avoid sitting in the waiting room for too long by calling ahead for an evaluation. A list of urgent care facilities can be found here.

Virtual visits, or telemedicine, are great for treating minor illnesses that are easily detectable, such as mild respiratory infections, minor ear infections, allergies and pink eye. Telemedicine is an affordable and convenient way to receive care from a physician without leaving your home. You can download an app, enter a brief medical history and your health insurance information and video chat with a physician in less than half an hour.

Next Steps & Resources

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.


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