6 Scenarios When You Should Call 911


By Dr. Katie E. Golden, MD

No one wants to call an ambulance if they don’t have to. When someone needs to go to the ER, most people prefer to have a loved one drive them — or drive themselves. This is especially true now that ambulance response times have been increasing amidst staffing shortages and busy hospitals.

There are certain scenarios where an ambulance is the safer, better option to get you to the hospital. No one should ever hesitate to call 911 when they think they could be having a medical emergency, even if it turns out to be a false alarm. But below are a list of circumstances when it is best to err on the side of safety. 

1. Severe chest pain

There are many different types of chest pain that bring people to the ER. And luckily, many of them turn out not to be an emergency. But most people have a good internal sense if their chest pain could be something really serious — like a heart attack.

If you think your chest pain could potentially be a heart attack, it is best to call an ambulance. This is especially true if you have a history of heart attacks or heart disease. It is also true for people who have pain that is:

  • Severe or worsening
  • A heavy weight or squeezing of the chest
  • Radiating to your back, jaw, or down your arm
  • Accompanied by a cold sweat
  • Making you feel nauseated, or causing you to vomit
  • Also causing significant shortness of breath

Not only will the ambulance get you to the hospital faster for treatment, but they can also run an EKG to diagnose a heart attack. And if you are having a heart attack, they can both get you started on the right treatment and alert the hospital ahead of time that you need emergency treatment. 

2. Difficulty breathing

This is another symptom where the severity makes a difference. Any person who is struggling to breathe should always call 911 rather than try to get to the hospital on their own. Breathing problems can get worse very quickly. This is especially true if you:

  • Have a history of severe COPD or asthma
  • Have any condition that requires supplemental oxygen
  • Wake up in the middle of the night or early morning with shortness of breath, and it does not immediately improve when you sit up
  • Can’t take a deep breath in
  • Can’t fully exhale
  • Can’t speak a full sentence without taking a breath
  • Feel lightheaded or dizzy

Ambulance crews have several medications and breathing devices on board that can immediately help you breathe better. And could save your life.

3. Anaphylactic (Allergic) Reaction

Anaphylaxis is a severe type of allergic reaction that goes beyond just an itchy rash. It quickly progresses to affect multiple vital organs — like the heart and lungs — and can progress to shock. Severe allergic reactions are one of the only conditions that can progress and be fatal within the span of minutes.

Most people who have life-threatening allergies are familiar with the symptoms. But if you have a history of a more mild allergy, don’t assume it won’t progress to something more serious. In fact, many allergic reactions worsen with repeated exposure to the allergen.  

Symptoms of anaphylaxis include:

  • Hives, which usually start quickly and involve a large area of the body
  • Swelling of the face, lips, tongue, or throat
  • Shortness of breath, coughing, or wheezing
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea, vomiting, or abdominal pain
  • Lightheadedness or fainting

Even if you are not sure if your symptoms are anaphylaxis, all 911 if they feel worse than normal, call 911. And if you have an Epipen on hand, give it to yourself immediately. And still call 911. You may need ongoing treatment to keep your symptoms under control.

4. Stroke symptoms

When it comes to a stroke, every minute counts. This is because the treatment is time-sensitive. The sooner you get to the hospital, the better. So if you or a loved one has stroke symptoms, call 911. Not your relative or neighbor or friend who once knew someone who had a stroke to ask what they think you should do. 

This is still true even if your symptoms seem to resolve quickly, which some people call a ‘mini-stroke.’ These can often be a preview of a bigger stroke to come, so it is best not to take any chances. 

Stroke symptoms can include one or several of the following:

  • Facial drooping on one side
  • Weakness on one side of the body (like hand, arm, or leg)
  • Numbness on one side of the body
  • Slurred speech, or saying words that don’t make sense
  • Inability to speak get words out
  • Sudden confusion, disorientation, or change in consciousness level
  • Amnesia-like memory loss, especially short term memory loss
  • Sudden vision loss
  • Difficulty walking or coordinating movements
  • New vertigo (a sensation like the room is spinning), especially if you are an older adult and have never had it before

Your paramedic crew will be sure you get to a hospital that is a stroke treatment center. And they will give the hospital the heads up that you are coming to expedite the process for you.

5. Overdoses

We all know that fatal overdoses — especially from opioids — are becoming way too common these days. But you can save someone’s life when you call for help at the first sign of an overdose. 

If you have naloxone (Narcan) on hand, use it immediately as you wait for the ambulance to arrive. Even if you are not sure what drug is causing the overdose, it is not harmful. It can only help.

Signs of a drug overdose — from any drug — can include:

  • Lethargy or unconsciousness
  • Significant confusion or disorientation
  • Extreme agitation or aggression
  • Slow, shallow, or irregular breathing
  • Pale, cool, or clammy skin
  • A weak pulse, which can feel either slow or fast
  • Vomiting

Many people delay care out of fear for legal trouble. But most states have good samaritan laws in place to protect people from any drug-related charges. This includes North Carolina. 

6. Falls and Traumatic Injuries

This last one is a little bit more obvious. Many injuries that are serious enough to need an ambulance leave you with no choice but to call for help. Usually this means the injury involves:

  • A broken bone that prevents you from walking or moving 
  • Severe pain
  • Significant bleeding that is hard to control
  • Head trauma that results in a loss of consciousness, confusion, or change in mental state 

This is especially true for anyone who takes anticoagulant (blood thinning) medications. 

A final note . . .

Keep in mind this list is only a few examples of times when it is best to call for an ambulance. So when you are worried about yourself or a loved one, never hesitate to call 911. Dispatchers are trained to recognize a potential emergency, and talk you through what to do next.