A race against the clock: Act quickly if you experience these symptoms of an emergency

April 6, 2021
Sign that says "Emergency Department Drop-Off'' at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital.
Time is brain. Time is tissue. If you’re experiencing symptoms of an emergency, call 911 or have someone drive you to the nearest emergency room. Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon.

Never ignore an emergency.

If you are experiencing signs or symptoms of a possible emergency, call 911 immediately. Never hesitate to seek help.

Every 40 seconds, someone has a heart attack or stroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If you think you could be having a heart attack or a stroke, it’s an emergency situation.

There’s a small window of time to receive the most effective treatments and to improve your chances of a full recovery, so don’t second guess symptoms and don’t wait to get care.

Heart attacks and strokes are currently the top two leading causes of death globally, according to the World Health Organization.

The good news is, with quick intervention, most people will recover.

Nine million neurons die every 60 seconds a stroke goes untreated. – Journal of Stroke.

During the pandemic, some people have hesitated to seek care. As a result, lives have been lost.

Therefore, it’s more important than ever to know the signs and symptoms of an emergency and to act fast to get emergency care if you think you need it.

While heart attacks and strokes are very different, there are some key similarities.

Both result from the lack of blood flow to important parts of the body. In a heart attack, a blockage affects blood flow to the heart, while in a stroke a blockage affects blood flow to the brain. Both also occur suddenly and require immediate medical attention. A delay in care increases the risks for severe damage and even death.

How do I know if I’m having an emergency?

We’ve outlined key information about common emergencies so you’ll know how to recognize signs and symptoms that demand immediate action.

man holding his chest, experiencing symptoms of an emergency.
There’s a small window of time to receive the most effective treatments and to improve your chances of a full recovery, so don’t second guess symptoms of an emergency and don’t wait to get care. Source: Getty Images.

What are the common symptoms of a stroke?

Common Stroke Symptoms:

      • Drooping or weakness; one side of the face, leg or arm may droop, be weak, or even numb.
        After the first symptoms of a stroke, medical care must begin within 3 hours for the best odds of full recovery. Do not wait to seek help! Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
      • Difficulty speaking; speech may be slurred, or it may be hard to understand what others are saying.
      • Vision loss; things may look dim, or there is loss of vision in one or both eyes.
      • Movement issues; it’s common to feel dizzy or experience problems with balance, coordination, moving or walking.
      • Remember the acronym F.A.S.T. from the National Stroke Association and the American Heart Association. “F” stands for facial drooping. “A” stands for arm weakness. “S” stands for speech difficulties and “T” stands for time. Act quickly if you see someone experiencing any of these symptoms.
      • Learn about UCHealth’s comprehensive, rapid response to strokes.

“BE FAST” was developed by Intermountain Healthcare, as an adaptation of the FAST model implemented by the American Stroke Association.
Reproduced with permission from Intermountain Healthcare. © 2011 Intermountain Healthcare. All rights reserved.

What are the symptoms of a heart attack?

      • Chest pain or discomfort. Uncomfortable pressure, fullness, squeezing or pain in the center of the chest that last more than a few minutes, or comes and goes.
      • Other body discomfort. Feeling discomfort or pain in the shoulders, neck, arms or jaw.
      • Chest pain that doesn’t improve; Rest or taking nitroglycerin doesn’t help.
      • Chest pain with other symptoms, including:
        • Sweating
          Permanent damage can occur just 30 minutes after heart blockage. – American Heart Association.
        • Cool, clammy skin or paleness
        • Shortness of breath
        • Nausea or vomiting
        • Dizziness or fainting
        • Unexplained weakness or fatigue
        • Fast or irregular pulse

Learn how UCHealth’s response times are consistently faster than national averages for heart attacks.

Difficulty breathing

If you’re short of breath, drawing a breath without getting any benefit from the air, or having trouble breathing, seek medical attention.

“If it’s hard to breathe, that needs attention,” says Dr. Nathan Anderson, an emergency medicine physician at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, Anderson. “Nothing is so elemental to life and imminently threatening as the inability to breathe.”

Issues such as asthma, pulmonary embolism, pneumonia and chronic lung disease may be to blame. Since shortness of breath is a symptom of COVID-19, be honest with the 911 dispatcher and let him or her know that you may have the virus so that emergency responders can protect themselves.

Trauma, burns and head pain

If you experience serious trauma, such as a bad fall – especially one in which you hurt your head or spine – seek medical attention immediately. Similarly, get help for serious burns, or burns that are deep, large, turn the skin dry and leathery, look charred, or have portions that are white, brown or black.

And never ignore a serious, sudden headache, especially when it presents with fever, confusion, faintness or loss of consciousness. A headache of that intensity could signal a serious issue, such as a stroke or very high blood pressure.

Abdominal pain

Unusual pain in the abdominal area, or anywhere below the ribs and above the hips, can be cause for seeking emergency medical help, especially if the pain is new, severe, or accompanied by nausea, vomiting and fever.

There are various causes of abdominal pain, including appendicitis, kidney stones, a tumor, diverticulitis and complications of undiagnosed pregnancies.

Remember: in many cases, seconds count. And even with the threat of COVID-19, it’s important to address serious medical conditions. Don’t hesitate to call 911 and go to the emergency department when it’s necessary.

“More and more injury can be occurring as time is passing,” Anderson said. “It’s better to overreact and over respond and be reassured, then to underreact and under-respond and miss the chance to intervene meaningfully.”

About the author

Jessica Ennis is a freelance writer and editor based in Denver. She loves nothing more than telling the stories of people, organizations and businesses focused on the greater good of their communities and the world around them. She’s devoted much of her career to nonprofit health care organizations. Jessica moved to Denver in 2010, after nine years working in the Office of News and Public Affairs for Vanderbilt University and its medical center in Nashville, Tennessee. She then spent five years as the communications manager for Children’s Hospital Colorado before starting her own writing and editing business in 2015. Jessica and her husband, Chris, have two sons, Reed and Dean, as well as a new addition to the family -- a rescue dog named Chewbacca.