You can't prevent every trip to the emergency room, but simple steps can keep you safe — or keep you alive when the worst happens. • Americans made more than 119 million visits to emergency rooms in 2006, according to the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey. Among the most common causes cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are trauma, abdominal pain, chest pain, fever and acute upper respiratory infection. • To help you keep out of the ER, the experts we spoke with say you should be getting ongoing care from a primary physician who may be able to catch small problems before they escalate. At the same time, they echo the position of the American College of Emergency Physicians: Don't hesitate if you are experiencing bleeding you can't stop, gaping wounds, breathing troubles, chest pain, extreme pain, vomiting that will not stop, extremely high fever or suicidal thoughts. • In addition, they note that the danger signs for children may be different than those for adults; consult with your pediatrician for symptoms that warrant an ER visit, such as any fever in a baby less than 3 months old.
Prevention: Use appropriate helmets for bikes and motorcycles, and seat belts in the car. Practice safety measures around swimming pools.
Before heading to the ER:
• Immobilize broken limbs with a straight object wrapped alongside the bone with a bandage. Create a sling for an arm with a large cloth pinned with a safety pin over the shoulder.
• Put an ice pack on any area that is swelling.
• Stop bleeding with pressure. Apply gauze and wrap the bandage around the gauze.
• Tell ER staff if you're taking blood thinners.
• Know the signs of concussion and get checked out immediately if there's any headache, nausea, confusion or slurred speech after hitting your head.
• Use CPR immediately on someone who doesn't have a pulse.
Prevention: Maintain a healthful lifestyle, and don't be a weekend warrior who exercises inconsistently. See your family practitioner regularly and be aware of your stroke and heart attack risk. Sweating and shortness of breath are red flags for a serious problem.
Before heading to the ER: Call 911 and go in an ambulance. Never drive yourself.
Prevention: Make good food choices and avoid overindulging, because abdominal pain can be caused by indigestion.
Pain can also be caused by food poisoning, appendicitis, diverticulitis, inflammation or colitis. Expectant mothers should ask about a possible ectopic pregnancy. If a head injury is involved, let the ER staff know immediately, as this could be a sign of a fatal blood clot.
Before heading to the ER: If you're vomiting, try to stay hydrated. Drink a half-ounce of clear liquid every 15 minutes and continue as long as it stays down. Take ibuprofen and aspirin for pain and fever as needed.
Prevention: Be aware of triggers such as smoke or allergies and avoid them if possible, particularly if you have asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. If you have signs of bronchitis, see your family practitioner before it leads to pneumonia.
Before heading to the ER: Use your inhaler and go to the doctor immediately. Stay calm because hyperventilation can aggravate the problem.
Prevention: Avoid germs by washing hands frequently and using hand sanitizers. Cough into your sleeve rather than your hand. Keep up to date on vaccinations.
Before heading to the ER: Babies younger than 3 months, senior citizens, cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, patients on steroids or those with a weakened immune system should go to the hospital with any fever, says the American College of Emergency Physicians.
Danger signs for otherwise healthy people can be a fever of 104 degrees or higher, a fever that lasts for more than four to five days, trouble breathing, a change in behavior, headache or neck stiffness.
• Don't smoke. Secondhand smoke irritates the lungs of younger children and makes them more susceptible to infection. Even if you go outside to smoke, it lingers in your clothes and in the car.
• Keep the top of sippy cups and bottles clean to avoid germs.
• Toss the trampoline. They put kids at risk for head, spine and limb injuries.
• Don't leave kids alone in or near water for a second.
• Lock up pills, poisons and choking hazards. The American Academy of Family Physicians advises taking a child who has swallowed a battery or something sharp or metal like a coin to a doctor immediately.