Signs You Need Medical Care

By Elizabeth Smoots, MD, FAAFP

Worrisome health symptoms can show up unexpectedly.

When you’re concerned but unsure the problem warrants a health care visit, call your health care provider’s office and ask about it. Many medical offices have staff available to answer these calls.

Generally, we see our primary care providers (PCP) for non-emergency symptoms and preventive care. Your PCP knows you best, including your health history, what has been effective for you in the past, and other health concerns — and can provide continuous care. Examples of non-emergency conditions: persistent symptoms such as urination or bowel changes, unintentional weight loss, emotional changes, joint pain, congestion or coughing.

For urgent problems after office hours, learn the procedure recommended by your provider’s office. You may be able to reach the provider on call. But if you can’t see your provider or don’t have one, here are some general guidelines on when and where to seek medical care:

1. Call 9-1-1: For life-threatening conditions such as severe chest pain or stroke, calling 9-1-1 helps ensure emergency response. And inside the aid car, paramedics can deliver treatment on the way to the hospital. Serious conditions include:

  • Difficulty breathing.
  • A possible heart attack: chest pain, which may radiate to an arm or jaw, with sweating, vomiting or dizziness.
  • A possible stroke: facial drooping; weakness or numbness on 1 side of the body; sudden trouble with walking, talking or vision; sudden severe headache; or loss of consciousness.
  • An injury that threatens life or limb.

2. Go to the hospital emergency room: For serious medical problems that may require rapid or advanced treatments in a hospital, emergency rooms are usually open 24/7. Following are some reasons to use an ER. Have someone drive you or call 9-1-1 if you have:

  • Heart attack or stroke signs (noted above).
  • Sudden confusion or a change in mental status.
  • Serious burns or a fever with rash.
  • A head injury or concussion; an eye injury.
  • Fainting or seizures.
  • Severe cuts that may need sutures; facial lacerations.
  • Fractures or dislocated joints.
  • Severe cold or flu symptoms.
  • Bleeding during pregnancy.
  • Severe abdominal pain with or without vomiting.

3. Consider an urgent care center: Nearly 8,000 urgent care centers in the U.S. offer services after hours and beyond a typical primary care office. They may stay open evenings and weekends and are generally less expensive than emergency rooms. Learn the location and hours of the clinic nearest you in advance of needing it. (Check your health care plan for benefit details.)

Illnesses or injuries that are not life threatening, but can’t wait until the next day, can be treated at an urgent care center. When to go? Examples include fever without a rash; severe or persistent abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, trouble breathing, flu symptoms, strains and sprains, or small cuts that may need stitches.

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