Five medical emergencies – know the symptoms

With a 'major incident' declared at one Belfast hospital last week due to a backlog in A&E, would you be sure when your symptoms warranted calling an ambulance or going to casualty? Here are five examples of when, despite waiting-time warnings, it's better to be safe than sorry

If you suspect a heart attack, it's crucial to dial 999 and get to A&E immediately

WE are all well aware that our busy A&E departments are swamped. But while nobody wants to be a nuisance, there are certain symptoms that should never be ignored and getting to A&E for a proper check-up and appropriate treatment could be life-saving.

Of course, there are always exceptions – and sometimes symptoms that feel very severe might turn out to be harmless (for instance, it's common for people experiencing severe indigestion to fear they're having a heart attack) – but remember, it's better to be safe than sorry: if you're worried, get checked out. It's better to risk embarrassment than risk your health.

Here are five of the most common red flag symptoms that could indicate a medical emergency:

:: Severe chest pains

Severe, persistent chest pains – which might be felt as a tightness, squeezing or pressing sensation – could indicate a heart attack. Pain might also travel down the arms (usually the left one), in the jaw, neck, back and abdomen, and other symptoms include breathlessness, sweating, anxiety (often described as a sense of 'doom'), nausea and vomiting and coughing/wheezing. If you suspect a heart attack, it's absolutely crucial to dial 999 and get to A&E immediately.

:: Difficulty breathing

Shortness of breath that doesn't feel normal, or that's causing you to feel unwell or worried, should never be ignored. It might be due to something harmless, or could be an anxiety attack, an asthma attack, allergic reaction (particularly if accompanied by swelling around the face/mouth area) or due to underlying illness, obstruction or injury. The important thing is to get it thoroughly checked as soon as possible.

:: Slurred speech and droopy face

Like heart attacks, a suspected stroke should always be treated as an emergency. Remember the FAST campaign: Face-Arms-Speech-Time. It's common for the face to droop on one side – the person might not be able to smile or fully open their eye; there may be paralysis in that arm too; speech may become slurred or garbled – the person might be talking in a confused way that makes no sense, or possibly unable to speak at all. And the 'T' stands for 'Time': time to dial 999. As with heart attacks, stroke symptoms can vary in severity. But don't take any chances, as if it is a stroke, speedy treatment can mean the difference between life and death, and long-term disability.

:: Acute mental confusion

A sudden confused and disorientated state that's out of character and causing concern could be due to a number of things. Again, it may be a symptom of stroke, or could be a result of a severe infection (is there also a rash, fever, vomiting?), or even concussion following a knock to the head, which may even have happened hours or days previously. Either way, it's best to get things checked as a matter of urgency.

:: Loss of consciousness

A simple fainting episode – particularly where there's a clear cause, such as a person has become too hot – is not usually a medical emergency. But there are exceptions, and any mysterious loss of consciousness, or repeated fainting attacks or seizures, particularly if accompanied by other symptoms or physical trauma – and especially if the person's pulse becomes very weak, erratic or fast – should be treated as a potential emergency. Dial 999 if worried.

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