Something's wrong, but how wrong? Who do you call?


You're awakened in the middle of the night by severe chest pains. You notice a lump in your right breast during your morning shower. You've had a fever and a persistent cough for the last three days.

If faced with one of these or other health problems, what would you do? Should you go immediately to the emergency room? Or should you just wait and see?

How you perceive symptoms strongly influences whether you'll seek emergency care for problems that aren't serious -- or whether you'll delay seeking treatment for conditions that could threaten your life.

Take this quiz to discover which symptoms you believe represent medical emergencies and, more importantly, which ones actually do.

Is this an emergency?

Assign 1, 2, or 3 to each of these 10 medical symptoms (1: Seek Emergency Care, 2: Call your doctor or clinic for advice or an appointment, 3: Wait and see.):

1.Chest pain or upper abdominal pain or pressure.

2.Sudden, severe headache with no prior history.

3.Unexplained weight loss.

4.Dizziness, sudden weakness or sudden change in vision.

5.Vomited once in six hours; no fever, pain or other symptoms.

6.Lump in your breast.

7.Suicidal or homicidal feelings.

8.Blood in your urine.

9.Abdominal cramps lasting two weeks.

10.Difficult breathing or shortness of breath.


1.(1) Seek emergency care -- Chest pains are among the most difficult symptoms to interpret. Each year, thousands of people die because they fail to get emergency help when experiencing this type of pain.

Intense, prolonged chest pain, often described as a feeling of pressure or heaviness, may be a sign that you're having a heart attack. The pain of a heart attack may spread to your left shoulder, left arm, both arms, your back or even your teeth.

Sometimes the pain occurs in the upper abdomen and is confused with severe indigestion. You may also experience nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, intense sweating, weakness, restlessness or anxiety.

2.(1) Seek emergency care -- Most headaches are minor and, usually, temporary. But a headache can also signal a more serious medical problem, especially if you typically don't have headaches, or if the type of headache is new.

For example, a severe headache that is accompanied by fever, vomiting, confusion, drowsiness and, perhaps, a stiff neck may indicate meningitis (infection or inflammation of the lining that surrounds your brain). Such a headache may also signal a cerebral hemorrhage (bleeding in the brain).

3.(2) Call your doctor -- If you unintentionally lose weight (typically about 10 pounds or more in a couple of months), call your doctor.

Unexplained weight loss, especially when it accompanies a loss of appetite, can signal a serious illness such as cancer. Poor appetite could also be a symptom of depression, kidney or liver disease, or simply a side effect of medication.

4.(1) Seek emergency care -- Dizziness, sudden weakness or deterioration in vision, speech or sensation within minutes to hours could be symptoms of a stroke. This occurs when blood flow in the brain is blocked.

Partial or complete paralysis in one limb or in an arm and leg, with or without involvement of the face, also can signal a stroke.

5.(3) Wait and see -- A single episode of vomiting with no other symptoms is most likely due to minor gastrointestinal viral infection. If you vomit repeatedly over several hours, call your doctor.

6.(2) Call your doctor -- A breast lump can be the first sign of breast cancer. Even though only two out of 10 lumps are cancerous, it's important to determine early if a lump represents breast cancer.

7.(1) Seek emergency care -- If a friend or relative talks of suicide or of plans to hurt someone else, believe the person. Watch closely to prevent him or her from finding the opportunity to carry out the plan.

Get professional help immediately from your local suicide hot line, emergency room or a psychiatrist. If the person appears ready to carry out the threat, call 911 or your local emergency telephone number.

8.(2) Call your doctor -- Even a small amount of fresh blood may make the toilet bowl appear full of blood. Chances are that you may have lost only a small amount of blood.

But because bloody urine can signal a tumor, infection, kidney disease, or another serious medical problem, call your doctor for advice.

9.(2) Call your doctor -- It's uncommon for abdominal cramps due to a minor illness, such as a viral infection, to last two weeks. After this period of time this symptom may indicate a serious gastrointestinal problem.

10.(1) Seek emergency care -- These breathing problems may signal a heart or lung problem. A heart attack can bring on these symptoms. A pulmonary embolism -- the passage of a blood clot from somewhere in the body, through the veins, to the lungs -- is another condition that can cause these symptoms.

Many variables, such as your age and past medical history, can change what is a "wait and see" situation for you into an emergency for someone else. It's always best not to interpret new symptoms yourself.

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