Know When to go to the Emergency Room: An Easy Reference Guide

Howard County General Hospital Emergency DepartmentWith so many medical care options these days, it’s confusing to know when you should go to the Emergency Room (ER) and when you should seek care at your physician’s office or urgent care center. When in doubt, trust your instincts. If you think you’re having a true medical emergency, always call 9-1-1.

This easy reference guide takes some of the guess work out of deciding.

Fever
First: Try acetaminophen or ibuprofen to control your fever. If your fever doesn’t go down, call your primary care physician or visit an urgent care facility.
Go to the ER: If you have a fever higher than 102 degrees that does not come down with acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

Flu Symptoms
First: Most physicians suggest you stay home and treat symptoms with over-the-counter medications and fluids. Your physician may prescribe medicine. After hours, your physician may have an answering service. Urgent care facilities are also a good option when your physician’s office is closed or unable to accommodate you for a visit that day.
Go to the ER: If you’re having difficulty breathing, a prolonged high fever, severe dehydration or relapse after getting better.

Broken Bone, Strain or Sprain
First: Typically a strain or sprain can be evaluated in a physician’s office or urgent care center. You may be referred for tests, physical therapy or to a specialist.
Go to the ER: If you think you have broken a bone.

Non-urgent Imaging Tests
First: Imaging studies such as an MRI, CT scan, ultrasound or X-ray, can be performed at many area imaging centers.
Go to the ER: If your physician specifically requests that you go the ER for a certain test.

Head Injury
Always go to the ER: If you hit your head, lose consciousness, experience a seizure and/or are vomiting.

Heart Attack or Stroke Symptoms
It’s especially important to call 9-1-1 if you are experiencing chest and/or arm pain, trouble breathing, excessive sweating and fatigue. These can all be symptoms of a heart attack. Howard County Fire and Rescue Services are specially trained to evaluate and stabilize heart attack patients while our team mobilizes at the hospital to prepare for your arrival. Do not drive yourself to the hospital.

Real Time Advice
Many physician practices now offer after-hours urgent care or an answering service, so check with your physician about these types of services. Also know that your primary care physician knows you and your medical history best and can often guide you to the appropriate treatment facility during office hours. Also, your insurance company may have a nurse hotline that can provide treatment and care setting advice. Again, none of these options should delay you from calling 9-1-1 if you feel you are having a true medical emergency.

Robert Linton II, M.D., is the director of the HCGH Emergency Department.