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How to Respond to a Medical Emergency

Knowing what to do if someone you're with is bleeding profusely or appears to be having a heart attack could save the person's life.

Taking a standard first-aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) class can help prepare you for most medical emergencies. The National Safety Council, American Red Cross, American Heart Association, and many hospitals offer classes in convenient locations.

The following suggestions can help you respond appropriately.

Burns

First-degree burns are red and painful but don’t have blisters. For a first-degree burn, put the injured area under cool water. Second-degree burns are deeper, painful and have blisters. They should be washed with soap and water and treated with an antibiotic ointment. If the blisters are severe, the skin looks white or charred, cover the burn with a nonstick sterile gauze bandage, if you have one, and seek medical attention.

Seek immediate emergency treatment if the burn is on the face, hands, feet or genitals; covers more than 1 square inch of skin; or if smoke inhalation causes respiratory problems, which will show up as coughing, wheezing, soot-tinged spit, or red sores in the mouth. Seek help immediately if there is chest pain or shortness of breath.

Choking adult

If the patient can cough or talk, he or she can still breathe. If the person becomes unable to breathe, cough, or talk, and if the person is still conscious, stand up and hold the person from behind. Wrap your arms around his or her waist and put one fist against the abdomen. Make sure your fist is slightly above the navel but below the rib cage. Holding your other hand over your fist, quickly thrust in and up with both hands 4 to 10 times. Call for emergency medical help if the person continues to choke.

Heart attack

If you suspect someone is having a heart attack:

  • Call 911 or your local access number for emergency medical service. Tell the dispatcher where you are. Don't hang up until you're told to do so.

While waiting for emergency help to arrive:

  • Give the person an aspirin if he or she is conscious and able to swallow.

  • If possible, get the person into a relaxed sitting position, with the legs up and bent at the knees, to ease strain on the heart. Loosen tight clothing around the neck and waist. Stay calm and reassuring.

Cardiac arrest

If you suspect someone has had cardiac arrest (meaning that his or her heart has stopped): 

  • Call 911, or send someone else to call for emergency medical help.

  • Press hard and fast in the center of the person's chest, aiming for about 100 compressions a minute (for example, about as fast as the beat of the classic disco song "Staying Alive," according to the American Heart Association). This is called "hands-only" CPR, and it can be done even without training. Give rescue breaths if you are trained in conventional CPR (chest compressions plus mouth-to-mouth breaths) and are confident in your ability to give this type of help.

  • Continue giving chest compressions until emergency help arrives.

  • If a defibrillator is available, use it. 

Poisoning

If someone has been poisoned, call a poison-control center or 911. Try to determine what the person has swallowed by finding the product container. Don't induce vomiting. The American Association of Poison Control Centers is available by telephone at 800-222-1222 to help you locate a poison control center that is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Severe bleeding

Elevate the injured area, support it, then use a sterile pad to apply pressure to the wound. If blood seeps through the pad, place additional clean pads on top of each other. Wear rubber gloves or place plastic bags over your hands to protect against hepatitis or HIV infection. Call for emergency medical assistance.

Stroke

If someone is having a hard time breathing, talking, seeing or moving 1 side of his or her face or body, the person could be having a stroke. Call 911 or seek emergency medical help right away.