When to Visit the ER and What to Do Before You Go
When you or a loved one is in pain or just had an accident, it’s easy to get stressed and confused about what to do.
Dr. Adam Barkin, medical director and chairman of emergency medicine at Sky Ridge Medical Center, (pictured above) offers expert advice on how to care for common injuries until you get to an emergency room, also known as an emergency department.
Barkin says the majority of visits to the ER are because of pain. “Pain is an emergency because no one wants to suffer,” he says. “And there’s always the concern that it could be something serious.” In general, Barkin recommends taking ibuprofen or acetaminophen to help reduce most types of pain including toothaches, muscle sprains, and even burns.
If you think you fractured or broke a bone, or suffered more than a simple sprain, you should seek medical care at an ER. There, they can take x-rays and stabilize it with a splint or cast, if needed, all in one place. But, until you reach the ER, try to elevate it and stabilize it with a makeshift splint, if possible. Icing and minimizing movement as much as possible can help manage the pain.
Cuts and gashes
First step: stop the bleeding. To accomplish that, Barkin suggests covering the wound with gauze or some type of dressing and applying gentle, consistent pressure for about five to 10 minutes. Once the bleeding stops, clean it. “Cleaning can be as simple as running it under water to get out the dirt and debris from the cut itself,” says Barkin.
Then cover it with a bandage until you can see a medical professional to suture it, if necessary. Ideally, you want to get the wound cleaned up and sutured within six to eight hours after the injury to reduce the risk of infection.
Objects inside the body
“We see foreign objects in basically any hole that someone can put something in,” says Barkin. Whether it’s a fly trapped in someone’s ear or a pencil shoved up a kid’s nose, these may sound a tad humorous at first, but they can be incredibly distressing for people.
If you can clearly see the object, you may be able to grasp it with your hands or a set of tweezers. If the item proves too challenging to extract, Barkin says they have several special devices in the ER to safely remove objects without causing harm.
If you suspect your pain is due to something you ate or drank, try an antacid such as Tums or Maalox. If the distress persists or gets worse, seek medical attention. In the meantime, don’t eat or drink anything until you receive a medical evaluation. “Abdominal pain can be due to a whole host of problems and some of which would require surgery,” Barkin explains. If you end up needing anesthesia for a surgery, having food in your stomach can cause you to vomit.
Rattlesnake bites are fairly common in Colorado, says Barkin. While you may have heard that you should suck out the venom or place a tourniquet above the bite to prevent the venom from spreading, Barkin says, don’t. You should get off the trail as quickly as possible and, once in the car, elevate your leg, ice it if possible, and get to an ER quickly.
Burns can be painful immediately after the incident and up to 24 hours afterward. The first thing you can do to relieve this pain is to apply ice or run the burn under cool water. Next, apply an antibiotic ointment like bacitracin, and cover with gauze. Follow up by applying ice for 20 minutes on and then 20 minutes off. Never apply the ice directly on the skin, Barkin says. Always keep a barrier like a towel or cloth between the ice and the burn.
When it comes to marijuana, one of the biggest problems Barkin sees these days is when a kid ingests an edible product. “If you have edibles or any other form of cannabinoids in the house, it’s crucial that you keep them away from anywhere a child could access them,” he warns. Barkin says, if you know your child ingested an edible and is not acting normally, it is best to transport to the ER for observation. There may be other serious causes for this behavior as well including head injuries, infection or other ingestion.
In the case of chest pain, Barkin suggests not to wait. Seek medical care quickly. Although, statistically, chances are you’re not having a heart attack, it’s very hard to diagnose without diagnostic tests. And because of the serious nature of what chest pain can mean, just go to the ER.
More Expert Advice
It’s important to have someone else drive you to the ER, Barkin explains. If your pain or emergency may compromise your driving ability, get someone to take you.
Similarly, he says he would never discourage anyone from visiting an ER if they have health concerns. “It’s very difficult to tell what’s an emergency and what’s not an emergency before you have some sort of evaluation by a healthcare professional,” Barkin says. “That’s why emergency departments are available and open 24 hours a day.”
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