10 Common Medical Emergencies and How To Handle Them

17 July 2023

common medical emergencies

Medical emergencies affect millions of people each year. They can lead to fatalities due to low-quality healthcare systems, limited access to timely care, and medical errors.

Knowing the signs and symptoms to look out for as well as the right medical treatment can increase patients’ chances of survival and speed up their recovery. 

In line with the Islamic Medical Association of North America’s (IMANA) commitment to providing medical education, we share some of the most common medical emergencies people experience. 

1. Heart Attack

A heart attack is a serious medical emergency that affects about 805,000 people in the U.S. every year. Knowing the symptoms people may experience will enable you to detect the problem early and prevent complications that may result in death. 

Here’s what you need to keep an eye out for:

  • Chest pain — sensations of pressure or tightness in the center of the chest. In the absence of pain, there may be mild discomfort, similar to indigestion.
  • Coughing or wheezing 
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Feeling or being sick 
  • Having a sense of anxiety
  • Pain in the left arm, starting from the chest
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing properly
  • Sweating

If someone is exhibiting any of these symptoms, call an ambulance and start giving them CPR right away. This guide from the National Health Service shows you how to perform it. 

2. Stroke

Strokes can happen if the blood flow in the brain is blocked (ischemic stroke) or there is a ruptured vessel in the brain (hemorrhagic stroke). 

In both cases, immediate care is necessary. Any delays could lead to lasting damage and/or death. Use the FAST acronym to remember its warning signs: 

  • F — facial drooping on one side
  • A — arm weakness or numbness, typically in just one arm
  • S — speech difficulties (slurred speech)
  • T — time. If you see any of these symptoms, seek immediate medical attention.

Remember, acting on time can give the patient a better chance of survival.

3. Choking 

Choking occurs when an object or food gets lodged in a person’s throat or windpipe, causing difficulties in breathing. They often exhibit the following signs:

  • A look of panic
  • Clutching the throat
  • Inability to talk or make any sort of noise 
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Making squeaky sounds when trying to breathe
  • Turning blue in the face

If someone is choking, try back blows, chest thrusts, or the Heimlich Maneuver to dislodge the obstruction, then get medical help if necessary.

4. Severe Allergic Reactions

More than 100 million people in the U.S. experience allergies every year. Keep an eye out for these signs:

  • A weak and rapid pulse
  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing due to constriction of the airways
  • Feeling faint or dizzy 
  • Nausea
  • Skin reactions, such as itching or blue, gray, or pale skin
  • Swelling of the tongue or throat
  • Wheezing or coughing 

If you or someone else is exhibiting these signs, use an epinephrine auto-injector (only if prescribed) and go to the emergency room to ensure they don’t recur. 

5. Seizures

About 1 in every 10 people have a seizure during their lifetime. Typically, seizures don’t warrant medical attention unless the person has epilepsy. 

A person who is about to go into a seizure may exhibit staring (looking into space), twitching movements, stiffening of the body, as well as involuntary and uncontrollable shaking or jerking.

If a person is having a seizure, the CDC recommends:

  • Staying with the person until the seizure ends
  • Telling the person what happened once they’ve recovered
  • Offering to call a taxi to make sure they reach home safely

While the seizure is ongoing, remember not to hold them down because doing so can be dangerous for you and the patient. 

6. Respiratory Distress

Respiratory distress and any type of breathing difficulty can be brought on by lung inflammation or infection. Here are its warning signs:

  • Chest pain when taking deep breaths 
  • Crackling sound in the lungs
  • Feeling extremely tired 
  • Fever
  • Rapid, shallow breaths 
  • Shortness of breath 

If someone is having trouble breathing, keep the person calm and call the ambulance right away. You can offer first aid by:

  • Helping them use their prescribed tools and drugs (for asthma and such)
  • Loosening their clothing and helping them rest comfortably
  • Bandaging any open wounds in the neck or chest
  • Monitoring their airway, breathing, and pulse

If necessary, give them CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation).

7. Traumatic Injuries

In 1998, traumatic injuries were responsible for the death of about 5.8 million people worldwide. While we’ve come a long way in terms of science, technology, and general awareness, it’s good to learn how to stabilize fractures and control bleeding until help arrives.  

8. Burns

Burns are a type of tissue damage that can cause the affected skin cells to die. It can happen due to heat, exposure to sunlight, and chemical or electrical contact. Burns vary in severity and don’t often require medical attention. But, you must provide immediate first-aid to stop the burning and prevent infection.

Here’s how: 

  • Flush the burned area with cool tap water and apply a cold, wet compress. Don’t use ice. 
  • Use a light, sterile gauze to cover the burn. You can use aloe vera to soothe minor burns or an antibiotic for second-degree burns. 
  • Take ibuprofen or acetaminophen to reduce pain and inflammation.

If you see blisters, don’t pop them. Doing so creates an open wound where bacteria can breed and cause an infection. 

9. Poisoning 

Poisoning is the harmful after-effect of exposure to certain medical drugs, chemicals, plants, foods, or cosmetics. While medical attention is required to treat health issues that arise from it, you can administer first aid by identifying the type or method of poisoning and taking steps to contain its spread.

If the victim has swallowed something fast-acting, call Poison Control as soon as possible.

Remember that children have a higher risk of poisoning so take preventative measures to avoid such accidents.

10. Unconsciousness 

Unconsciousness can be a grave problem because it can be difficult to identify. Unconscious individuals often look as if they’re sleeping which may prevent them from receiving prompt medical assistance. If you suspect that someone has become unconscious, use this ABC to identify signs of life:

  • Airway: Check whether the airway is open. If the person seems to be experiencing labored breathing, they might have something lodged in their windpipe. 
  • Breathing: Place your cheek close to the victim’s mouth and watch their chest for signs of breathing. 
  • Circulation: Check for signs of bleeding, pulse, and heartbeat. 

Call for emergency medical assistance as soon as possible.

Shape the Future of Healthcare with IMANA 

IMANA believes that articles like this help inform the public about relevant and timely topics that support health and overall well-being. Visit our health education resources for further information about general health, mental health, and more.