How to save your own life
DO YOU KNOW HOW TO TELL A MINOR COMPLAINT FROM A MEDICAL EMERGENCY? LARRAINE SATHICQ LOOKS AT KEY SIGNS OF SOMETHING SERIOUS
Everyone experiences inexplicable aches and pains from time to time and usually it’s just the stresses and strains of a busy life taking their toll. But every now and then they can be symptoms of a more serious medical condition. While we shouldn’t start constantly jumping to the worst conclusion, knowing the early warning signs of a dangerous situation might one day help you save your own life or someone else’s around you. Here are a few scenarios that might seem harmless but that you need to be aware of, as well as expert medical advice about what course of action you need to take.
You’ve Copped a blow to the head
Whether it’s a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time or making a simple error of judgement on a slippery footpath, a bump can leave you with more than just an egg on your head. Concussion can result from even a minor head injury and may cause loss of consciousness, dizziness, nausea, confusion, a headache and short-term amnesia, says Sydney-based emergency doctor Nadine Huddle.
“Most cases of concussion don’t require further investigation, but some people get bruising, swelling or bleeding on the brain,” she adds.
What to do:
Even if your injury is minor and the blow didn’t knock you out, you should still see your GP, advises Huddle. “Symptoms like passing out, persistent vomiting, confusion or seizures can appear immediately or days later, and could indicate a more significant injury,” she says. “If any of these happen after a head injury, you should go straight to hospital. But don’t drive yourself there – get someone else to drive you or call an ambulance.”
You have an achy upper body
You might think it’s worth waiting to see if you feel better in a few hours, but these symptoms can be life threatening. Sudden, severe chest pain and shortness of breath aren’t the only sign of a heart attack, especially for women. Sore arms or shoulders, or an aching neck, jaw or back shouldn’t be ignored. Ditto shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, fatigue and a cold sweat; all can signal a heart attack. These symptoms may come on suddenly or slowly and usually last more than 10 minutes.
What to do:
Call an ambulance without delay, says Dr Justin Bowra, emergency physician and CEO of My Emergency Dr. Sit or lie down and wait for the paramedics to arrive. They will have a portable ECG machine and will assess your condition and make sure you’re stabilised on the way to hospital. Don’t feel embarrassed about a potential false alarm. “Almost every day we see apologetic patients who say their partners made them get medical attention,” says Bowra. “Emergency staff are always happy when the news is good, but coming to see us is the only way we know you’re safe.”
You can’t keep anything down
No one feels like solid food when they have vomiting and diarrhoea, but being unable to keep fluids down can be dangerous, says Huddle. Untreated dehydration can lead to dangerously low blood pressure, low blood sugar and even kidney problems. “Signs of dehydration in adults include darker urine and a dry mouth,” she says. “If you’re dehydrated, you lose your appetite, and it can become a downward spiral where the less you take in, the less you want to have.”
What to do:
Keep your fluids up by taking frequent sips of water or a rehydration solution or sports drink containing electrolytes, even if you don’t feel thirsty.
“Your GP can prescribe anti-nausea medication, but if you can’t even keep that down or it’s been hours since your last drink, it’s time to get to hospital,” says Huddle. “Dehydration is reasonably easy to fix with IV fluids and most people feel better soon after.”
You have a headache like no other
A thunderclap headache comes on suddenly and unlike other headaches that start slowly, this one is most severe right at the beginning. “When this happens, especially when it’s to someone without a history of headaches or with high blood pressure or taking blood thinner medication, it could be a sign of a haemorrhage,” explains Huddle. “It can be caused by a weakened blood vessel leaking into the brain or by spontaneous bleeding in the brain tissue. Although most headaches aren’t life-threatening, the most severe forms can be.”
What to do:
Call an ambulance ASAP. “You need to call someone straight away and get to Emergency without delay,” advises Huddle.
“Most headaches have a less serious cause, but some conditions can threaten your sight, your brain function or even your life, and we can figure that out in the emergency department and start treatment immediately.”
You’re doubled over in pain
Abdominal pain could be caused by anything from indigestion to a burst blood vessel, but the most immediate concern for most people is appendicitis, the inflammation of that mysterious finger-shaped organ attached to the large intestine. An inflamed appendix can cause serious problems, especially if it ruptures and leaks toxins into your bloodstream. Symptoms may include pain in the lower right side of your abdomen, a slight fever, nausea, diarrhoea and constipation. “Most cases of abdominal pain are due to other conditions, some of which may be just as serious, for example a ruptured aortic aneurysm or diverticulitis,” explains Bowra. “But as a general rule, if your tummy doesn’t hurt when you cough or jump up and down on the spot, it’s probably not appendicitis.”
What to do:
“If you have severe pain that lasts more than a few minutes, if you feel light-headed or pass out, or if it’s the worst pain you’ve ever felt, it’s time to call an ambulance,” advises Bowra. “Even if your condition isn’t life-threatening, it’s important to seek specialist medical advice and get the pain sorted out.”