8 Signs You Can Handle a Medical Emergency

Updated: Mar. 28, 2022

EMTs share the key steps that save precious time (and can help save your life) when you need emergency medical services.

medical emergency with paramedics and ambulance
kali9/Getty Images

Save critical time

Hopefully, you’ll never need to find out, but are you prepared for a medical emergency? From what’s in your phone to what’s in your medicine cabinet, there are things you can do now to be ready in case you need help. EMTs share tips that can save critical moments when you call for emergency assistance. Read their advice.

close up shot of woman holding smartphone
Mint Images/Getty Images

You’ve got ICE

We’re not talking about the cold kind. ICE stands for “in case of emergency.” It’s the person you’d want emergency medical technicians (EMTs) or doctors to call if they need to reach a loved one—especially if you are alone and unable to communicate. “It can often be beneficial to have some basic medical history, such as a history of diabetes or stroke,” explains Taz Meyer, an EMT paramedic and chief executive officer at St. Charles County Ambulance District in the St. Louis area.

Keep your ICE contact information next to your driver’s license or identification card to make it easier to find, recommends Sam Shen, MD, the medical director of emergency medicine at Stanford Health Care. It’s also smart to store your emergency contact under “ICE” in your cell phone’s address book. If you have a newer version of the iPhone, fill out the Health app that comes with it, providing crucial information, including your ICE contact and blood type. Even if you keep your phone locked, EMTs can swipe right to reveal the “Emergency” button, which will lead them directly to your medical information. You can download similar apps for Android phones.

emergency room doors
Studio 642/Getty Images

You’ve identified the best nearby emergency room

During an emergency, you don’t want to spend time Googling the nearest ER. Instead, look up the information ahead of time (like, right now) and keep your local hospital’s address and phone number posted on your fridge and in your cell phone so you don’t waste time searching for it. While you’re at it, take note of poison control’s number. You can call the American Association of Poison Control Centers or look up your state’s poison control center. Check out the most common reasons people call a poison control center.

woman writing down emergency contacts
JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Your loved ones know how to contact your doctors

In case of emergency, you also don’t want to scramble to find your doctors’ phone numbers. Keep them posted on your fridge as well as in your cell phone contacts. That way family, friends, EMTs, and ER doctors can find them easily. “Any information that can assist medical providers in determining your clinical condition, risks, and potential treatments is very helpful,” says Dr. Shen. (Here are secrets to finding the best doctors.)

man calling an ambulance for woman in pain
Motortion/Getty Images

You’re willing to call an ambulance

As a medical emergency unfolds, it’s not always obvious whether you should drive yourself to the hospital or call an ambulance. “If a patient is experiencing chest pain, shortness of breath, significant bleeding, significant pain, dizziness, visual disturbances, weakness, or palpitations, then calling for emergency medical services is the best option,” says Shen. Don’t wait until a health condition has progressed before calling an ambulance. “It is very common for people experiencing chest pain to wait for sometimes more than an hour before calling for help,” he points out. “If it is truly a heart attack, time is very important to the outcome. In general, if a person thinks something could be seriously wrong, they should not wait to call for help.” When in doubt, call an ambulance. Avoid these common mistakes in the ER.

dszc/Getty Images

You have aspirin in your medicine cabinet

If you have chest discomfort or shortness of breath and are concerned you may be having a heart attack, call 911 and chew an aspirin. The drug prevents clots, which, in turn, can clog arteries and deprive the heart of oxygen. “If you’re having a heart attack, you can take an adult strength aspirin or two to four baby aspirin,” says Shen. “However, it is OK to wait until EMS arrives or a physician is involved to determine if an aspirin is needed as a patient may not necessarily know that he or she is having a heart attack.” Learn the difference between aspirin and ibuprofenand when to take them.

man looking at prescription pill bottle
Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Getty Images

You have your medication names and dosage details handy

“Having a list of current medications including dose and instructions is very important,” notes Shen, and that includes both prescription and over-the-counter drugs and supplements that you take regularly. “As long as it is easy to read and placed in an easy-to-find spot, such as next to your identification card in your wallet, the information can be obtained by medical providers.” You can also line up your medications, take a photo of them, and store the image in your phone, suggests Meyer. Store a list of your medications in the cloud or in a Google Doc.

medical alert ID bracelet
istock/John Campos

You always wear your medical ID jewelry

Certain health organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), recommend wearing a medical ID bracelet or necklace if you have a health condition that an EMT or doctor should know about immediately, including diabetes, epilepsy, or a food allergy. “Another benefit is notification that they have an allergy or adverse reaction to certain medications,” notes Meyer. “This way, a paramedic doesn’t end up administering a medication that has previously caused the person problems.”

close up of woman giving man cpr
Mongkolchon Akesin / EyeEm/Getty Images

You know how to do CPR

Hopefully, you never have to use it, but considering that sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of adult death in the United States and that most of these incidents happen at home, knowing how to perform CPR is crucial. The American Red Cross offers certification classes on adult and pediatric CPR as well as automatic external defibrillators (AED). To find a CPR and AED class near you or to sign up for an online-only lesson, check out the American Red Cross’s website.