You know you aren’t feeling well — something is definitely wrong. But when is a cut, an ache or an illness considered a medical emergency? It can be hard to know.

According to Michael Fitzpatrick, M.D., director of emergency medicine, central division, Geisinger Health System, you should get to the Emergency Department (ED) immediately if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Abdominal pain (unusual)
  • Bleeding that is uncontrolled
  • Chest, back or upper abdominal pain, tightness or pressure
  • Confusion or changes in mental status
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Fainting, sudden dizziness, weakness
  • Headache (unusual)
  • Pain that is sudden or severe
  • Vision changes
  • Vomiting or diarrhea that is severe or persistent

“These are signs of a serious medical emergency,” explains Dr. Fitzpatrick. “If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, call 911 or have someone take you to the hospital.”

Emergencies for children

“Children may not be able to tell you exactly what’s going on,” says Dr. Fitzpatrick. “They may show different symptoms than an adult would, and what might not be serious in an adult may be very serious in a child. If you think your child might be experiencing a medical emergency, seek help. It’s definitely better to be safe than sorry in these cases.”

What’s important?


Communicate clearly. ED staff need to learn as much about you as quickly as they can. When you are speaking to them, try to remain as calm as possible. That may not be easy to do if you are experiencing a medical emergency, but clear communication is extremely important, especially when you are describing your symptoms.

List your medications. What medications are you taking? How often do you take them? How long have you been taking them? Did you recently start a new medication? Did you recently stop taking a medication you had been on for awhile? All of this is important — and in some cases, your medications might even be at the root of your current problem.

Allergies. If you’re allergic to anything, the ED personnel need to know. List any allergies you have to medications, foods, insects, latex or anything else that you’ve had a reaction to in the past.

Immunizations. Knowing your immunization status is also important. If you are a regular Geisinger patient and you arrive in one of our EDs, your electronic medical record, including your immunization record, will be right where it needs to be. Immunization records for children can be quite extensive. For adults, they mainly consist of flu, hepatitis B and tetanus. If you’re physically injured, knowing whether or not you have had an immunization against tetanus will be important to the people caring for you in the ED.

Wait times


Because EDs are designed to handle emergencies, they simply can’t operate on a first-come, first-serve basis. They treat the most severe cases first. This means there can be long wait times for less critical issues. 

“But if you’re in pain or there’s a change in your condition while you’re waiting, please don’t hesitate to let us know,” says Dr. Fitzpatrick. “Clear communication is very important when it comes to giving you the best possible care.”