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Know when to call 911 for help

The index finger is about to press the call button on the red screen that says "911."

Jan. 26, 2019—If you saw a car crash, you'd know to pick up your phone and call 911. But what if someone suddenly developed a bad headache or started acting very confused? It's less dramatic, but that could be an emergency too.

And in an emergency, someone's life—perhaps even your own—may depend on how quickly you get medical help by calling 911. You should make that call if you think a situation is life-threatening or could seriously harm someone, according to the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP). Even if you're not sure, it's best to call 911 and let the operator decide if it's an emergency or not, ACEP advises.

Warning signs

Some common warning signs may warrant a 911 call, according to ACEP. For example, you should call if someone:

  • Has a lot of trouble breathing.
  • Has chest pain, pressure or discomfort that lasts longer than two minutes.
  • Has a fast heartbeat, especially with trouble breathing and fainting.
  • Passes out or is unresponsive (you can't wake them up).
  • Has sudden physical or mental changes, such as trouble seeing, walking or speaking; numbness or weakness of any part of the body; or dizziness, confusion or other very odd behaviors.
  • Is bleeding heavily, or the bleeding won't stop.
  • Has a broken leg or any broken bone that pokes through the skin.
  • Is choking, drowning or has ingested a poison.
  • Has had a drug overdose.
  • Has severe burns.
  • Gets a sudden, severe headache.
  • Has sudden and intense pain or unusual stomach pain.
  • Has a severe allergic reaction, especially with trouble breathing.
  • Is threatening suicide or harm to others.
  • Is coughing or vomiting up blood.

You've called 911—now what?

If you call 911, do your best to stay calm and answer the operator's questions. Stay on the line for as long as the 911 operator tells you to.

If you're calling from a cellphone, be sure to give your exact location. Emergency services personnel may only be able to find your general location if you call from a cellphone, so you need to tell them exactly where you are. If it's at night, turn on any lights you can to help the ambulance crew see you.

Keep a first-aid kit

In an emergency, a fully stocked first-aid kit could come in handy. Here's what to put in yours.

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