How do you tell the difference between a true emergency and a minor problem? Certain symptoms are so alarming that the need for emergency care, or even an ambulance, is obvious. But what should you do about more common illnesses and injuries? Only a doctor can diagnose medical problems. But, you can protect your family's health by learning to recognize certain symptoms.

Know which symptoms to watch for

According to the American College of Emergency Physicians, the following are warning signs of a medical emergency:

  • Difficulty breathing, shortness of breath;
  • Chest or upper abdominal pain or pressure;
  • Fainting;
  • Sudden dizziness, weakness or change in vision;
  • Change in mental status (such as unusual behavior, confusion, difficulty arousing);
  • Sudden, severe pain anywhere in the body;
  • Bleeding that won't stop;
  • Severe or persistent vomiting;
  • Coughing up or vomiting blood; and
  • Suicidal or homicidal feelings.

You should also be familiar with the symptoms of common illnesses and injuries. Talk to your regular doctor before you have an emergency. Ask what you should do if you think someone in your family needs emergency care. Should you call the doctor's office first? Should you go straight to the emergency department? What should you do when the doctor's office is closed?

Trust your instincts

Parents are usually very good at recognizing signs of unusual behavior or other symptoms that indicate an emergency. Many other factors, including the time of day, other medical problems, or state of mind, can make an otherwise minor medical problem an "emergency."

When to Call an Ambulance

When should you call an ambulance instead of driving to the emergency department? Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is the victim's condition life ­threatening?
  • Could the victim's condition worsen and become life ­threatening on the way to the hospital?
  • Could moving the victim cause further injury?
  • Does the victim need the skills or equipment of paramedics or emergency medical technicians?
  • Would distance or traffic conditions cause a delay in getting the victim to the hospital?

If the answer to any of these questions is "yes," or if you are unsure, it's best to call an ambulance. This is true even though you can sometimes get to the hospital faster by driving than by calling an ambulance. Paramedics and emergency medical technicians communicate with the physician in the emergency department by radio. They are trained to begin medical treatment on the way to the hospital. This prevents any delay that could occur if the patient is driven to the emergency department. The ambulance can also alert the emergency department of the patient's condition in advance.

Fortunately, if you live in Lake Bluff, calling for help is easy - just dial 9-1-1. When your call is answered, speak calmly and clearly. Give your name, address, phone number, location of the victim (such as upstairs in the bedroom), and nature of the problem. Don't hang up until the dispatcher tells you to. They may need additional information or need to give you instructions.

Material provided by the American College of Emergency Physicians.