Skip to Content

Don't delay: 12 signs you should go to the emergency room

Figuring out whether a condition requires emergency care can sometimes be tricky. Here are 12 of the most common symptoms that warrant a trip to the emergency room.

June 10, 2024
Teen girl listens as doctor explains test results - stock photo

The advice is seemingly everywhere — only go to the emergency room (ER) for a true emergency. But how can you know what’s an emergency and what’s not? We’ve gathered 13 symptoms that are definitely ER-worthy. This list of symptoms is not complete but does cover the most common questions people have when deciding whether to visit an ER.

Remember — If you are alone and experiencing emergency symptoms, don’t try to drive yourself to the ER. Call 911. It’s also a good idea to call for emergency assistance if you are alone with a child having symptoms or if you can’t safely move the person in need or drive them.

1. Some headaches

If you can describe a sudden headache as your “worst headache ever,” call 911. Of course, that “worst headache ever” could just be your first migraine, but it could also be a sign of bleeding in the brain (aneurysm or stroke). You don’t want to take that risk.

Even non-severe headaches can be a reason to head to the emergency room. Seek immediate medical attention for any of the following:

  • Headaches coupled with dizziness, vision problems, slurred speech or loss of balance
  • Headaches coupled with fever, stiff neck or vomiting
  • Headaches that appear after you have been sick recently or are taking medications that suppress your immune system
  • Headaches that emerge after hitting your head
  • Headaches that feel different or unusual from other migraines or severe headaches that you’ve experienced and are not relieved by your usual treatment methods

2. Sudden or severe dizziness, confusion and/or clumsiness

Mild dizziness or forgetting where you put your glasses (when they’re on your head) don’t qualify. You can bring those up to your doctor at your next office visit, or go to an urgent care for a quick checkup. The important words here are “sudden” orsevere.”

If any of these symptoms come on suddenly or are severe, call 911 or head to an ER:

  • Clumsiness, loss of balance or fainting
  • Difficulty speaking or trouble understanding speech
  • Unexplained loss of consciousness

3. Seizures (without previously diagnosed epilepsy)

When it comes to seizures, it’s a good idea to lean on the side of caution.

Call 911 or go to the ER in the event of a seizure, unless the person has a diagnosed seizure disorder (e.g., epilepsy). For people with such disorders, seizures are not usually a cause for alarm. An action plan can help inform family and friends what to do during a seizure and when it's an emergency. Still, if you witness a seizure and don't know if the person has a seizure disorder, play it safe and call 911.

4. Head injury

Any significant bump to the head should trigger a medical visit.

Sometimes, the most serious symptoms don’t start for hours or days after the injury. Head to the ER if you have any of these after a head injury:

  • Different size pupils (the black portion of the eye)
  • Dizziness/loss of consciousness
  • Extreme fatigue or sleepiness
  • Inability to move arms or legs
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Seizures
  • Severe headache or neck/muscle stiffness
  • Severe mood swings
  • Vomiting

5. Fever

For babies under three months old, any temperature higher than 100.4°F is cause for an ER visit.

Most fevers don’t require emergency care. However, if they match any of the following criteria, call 911 or head to the nearest ER:

  • Accompanied by other severe symptoms (e.g., racing heartbeat, stiff neck, rash, trouble urinating, swollen legs, weakness, fainting, diarrhea and/or vomiting)
  • Not responding to over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen or ibuprofen
  • Over 104°F in adults

6. Chest pain

Chest pain, even if it feels more like pressure or squeezing, is worthy of an ER visit. Severe and sudden chest pain may occur alone or with other symptoms, such as radiating pain to the arm or jaw, sweating, vomiting or shortness of breath. Chest pain can often signal a heart attack. But even if it is not heart attack-related, chest pain can be a sign of other life-threatening conditions, such as a lung infection.

7. Difficulty breathing

People sometimes refer to everything from a mild cough to severe wheezing as a “breathing problem.” To know whether it’s an emergency, consider these questions.

If any of these answers are “yes,” call 911 or head to the ER:

  • Did it come on suddenly?
  • Is it severe?
  • Is it accompanied by chest pain, nausea, vomiting or fainting?
  • Does it affect the ability to talk?
  • Are the lips or fingertips turning blue?

People with asthma or chronic lung disease may be directed by their physicians to go to the emergency room, if their regular medical/action plan does not improve breathing.

8. Severe pain

Any sudden and severe pain anywhere in the body is a signal to head to the ER.

Of most concern is any pain in the abdominal area or starting halfway down the back.

9. Cuts and wounds

All animal bites need emergency medical attention.

Head to the ER for any deep cut, especially on the face, eye or genital area. Also, go to the ER for animal bites and any wound that won’t stop bleeding.

10.  Burns

Size, severity and the type of burn determine when to go to the ER.

Go to the ER for burns that:

  • Are electric or chemical
  • Are on the hands, face, feet, genitals or joints
  • Char, blister or leave open skin
  • Cover a large area of skin, even if the burns are mild

Also, go to the ER if there is any reason to suspect that the person inhaled smoke or fumes.

11. Concerning conditions during pregnancy

If you or a loved one is pregnant and experiences any of these concerning conditions, go the ER:

  • Abdominal pain accompanied by dizziness
  • Unusually heavy bleeding
  • Symptoms of shock (such as agitation, confusion or physical signs of lack of oxygen)

Please note that while bleeding or spotting during pregnancy can be scary, it’s also very common and does not always mean miscarriage. The choice to go to the ER depends on your OB/GYN and the time of day. Typically, your doctor will ask you to come in to figure out the best course of action based on your medical history. But if you experience bleeding and are concerned about it outside of your provider’s hours of operation, it’s a good idea to head to the ER.

12. Testicular pain

Since testicles are very sensitive, even a minor injury can cause discomfort.

Pain in one or both of the testicles can have a number of possible causes. Sometimes, pain felt in the testicles is actually a sign of groin or abdominal issues. Other times, pain in the testicle itself is caused from issues with the supporting tube and tissue.

If issues are sudden and severe, this can be a sign of testicular torsion or a twisted testicle. Testicular torsion can cause the body part to lose its blood supply, resulting in loss of the testicle. If you suspect testicular torsion or if testicular pain is accompanied by nausea, fever, chills, or blood in your urine, it’s important to seek medical attention immediately.

Sometimes, it’s obvious that a situation is an emergency; other times, it’s not. If you think you’re experiencing an emergency call 911 or locate an ER new you immediately.

This blog was written for HCA Healthcare in 2022. It was reviewed and repurposed for the HCA Healthcare Capital Division in 2024.

June 10, 2024

Related Blog Posts

What you should know about freestanding emergency rooms 

February 06, 2024
Learn more about emergency rooms, freestanding ERs and urgent care clinics and when to visit an ER rather than an urgent care center.

What you should know about freestanding emergency rooms 

February 06, 2024
Learn more about emergency rooms, freestanding ERs and urgent care clinics and when to visit an ER rather than an urgent care center.

Safety tips for a happy holiday season 

November 16, 2023
Thousands are rushed to the ER with holiday decorating-related injuries each year. Here are some safety tips for the holiday season.

Imaging in the ER 

August 20, 2023
Reston Hospital Center
Understand the difference between imaging exams and what you can expect.