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First Aid: 5 Emergencies: Do You Know What to Do?

Knowing how to act in a medical emergency can save a life.

By Jeanie Lerche Davis
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith, MD

Chest pain, choking, bleeding, fainting, seizures. If an emergency occurs, how would you react? Do you know the first steps of first aid?

"People are often hesitant to get involved in an emergency situation," William Walters, MD, an emergency medicine specialist at Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia, tells WebMD. "It's not so much they don't want to help. They're worried they won't know what to do."

After all, emergencies can happen anywhere -- at a game, on a city street, at the grocery store, at home. What should you do?

The Basics

Call 911. Better safe than be sorry, says Walters. "It's better that 911 get too many calls than too few," he says. "We routinely hear from paramedics summoned to a residence, for what neighbors thought was an emergency, to find out everyone's fine. There are never hard feelings about that. Paramedics expect that as part of the job. We'd much rather show up and find the person in good health at home than be called too late and things have spiraled out of control."

Stay calm. We've all heard stories about the Good Samaritan who gets hit by a car while trying to help someone else. "Creating another accident or another victim complicates things much more -- almost more than not getting involved. If you can't help safely, you shouldn't help," Walters tells WebMD. "It's important that you stay calm, make sure you're not putting yourself or anyone else in jeopardy, then attempt to help."

Start CPR. "Even people who have never taken a CPR course can be directed by a dispatcher to do CPR," says Walters. "Many 911 dispatchers are trained to teach CPR over the phone. You can do chest compressions without even doing mouth-to-mouth. ... It's better than doing nothing."

5 Common Emergencies

Imagine these common situations. Here's what to do:

Emergency: Dizziness, Fainting. You're sitting at a game, maybe in the airport. A guy says he doesn't feel well. "If he tells you -- a perfect stranger -- that he feels weak, ill, or dizzy, you should be dialing 911," says Walters. "He needs medical attention." There are many medical causes for these symptoms, like a heart condition, diabetes, low blood sugar, pregnancy, heart attack, or it could be heat-related.

While you wait for paramedics to arrive:

Check alertness: Ask, "Are you OK?" advises Elda Ramirez, RN, MSN, FNP, CEN, professor and division head of emergency care at The University of Texas School of Nursing at Houston. "If they respond, ask 'Do you know where you are?' Ask things to determine level of orientation. If they become unresponsive, check for pulse, check to see if they're breathing. If you're by yourself, you have to find someone to help you."

Check breathing: Listen for breathing through the nose, watch the chest for rise and fall. Take a pulse, either at the wrist or neck. If they are breathing and have a pulse, you should stay with them to offer support. Again, 911 can help you figure out how to take someone's pulse.

Start CPR: If the patient isn't breathing and does not have a pulse, start CPR.

Make the patient comfortable: "If this person has been out in the heat, move them to a shady spot. If they're sweating, pour water over their skin," Ramirez tells WebMD. Elderly people or very young children are more prone to heat-related conditions. "If they're awake, give them fluids to drink," she says.

Emergency: Chest Pain. If someone grabs their chest and says "my chest hurts," assume it's a heart attack. "Chest pain is a heart attack until proven otherwise," Ramirez tells WebMD. "That's how we look at it in the ER world. A 17-year-old can have a heart attack. Anyone can have a heart attack."

Plan of action: Dial 911. Then check airway, breathing, circulation (ABC). Are they breathing? Do they have a pulse? If not, start CPR.

"The sad thing is, people get scared if they don't know CPR, they don't want to do the wrong thing," says Ramirez. "The most important thing -- if someone is not breathing -- is to position their head with the chin up, get their tongue out of the way (so the airway is open), then start doing chest compressions."

Emergency: Choking. You're talking at the dinner table, and someone starts coughing. When does it become an emergency? "When they're coughing, it's OK, because there is air movement, they are breathing," Ramirez says. "If they're not making any noise whatsoever, their face is getting red, you need to do the Heimlich maneuver. At that point, they are not breathing."



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