When someone has an accident or is ill it can be incredibly difficult to assess how serious it is and whether it is necessary to call an ambulance, go to A&E or simply visit your GP. Undoubtedly the decision will vary from case to case but follow these guidelines to avoid wasting the emergency services time.

When to Call an Ambulance

Administer first aid and call an ambulance if the casualty:

  • appears not to be breathing, has chest pain, or is struggling for breath, possibly breathing in a strange way appearing to ‘suck in’ below their rib cage or using other muscles to help them breathe.
  • has a severe injury that is bleeding profusely and you are unable to stop with direct pressure on the wound.
  • is unconscious or unaware of what is going on around them.
  • is experiencing weakness, numbness or difficulty speaking.
  • has had a fit for the first time, even if they seem to recover from it later.
  • has a seizure lasting longer than 3 minutes.
  • has a severe allergic reaction. Administer their adrenaline auto-injector first (if they have one) then phone an ambulance immediately.
  • for a child or an elderly person: if they are burnt and the burn is severe enough that you think it will need dressing. Put the burn under cool running water and call an ambulance. Keep cooling the burn until the paramedics arrive – look out for signs of shock. For a fit adult you do not need to call an ambulance but they will need medical attention.
  • has fallen from a height, been hit by something travelling at speed (like a car) or been hit with force whilst doing a combat or contact sport and there is a possibility of a spinal injury. If they are conscious keep them completely still and get an ambulance on the way. If they are on their back, unconscious and breathing and you are concerned about their airway, very carefully roll them into the recovery position and then phone an ambulance. If they are unconscious and not breathing, start CPR – if you are alone, do one minute of CPR before phoning for an ambulance.


When to Call an Ambulance

Take someone straight to A&E if they have:

  • a fever and are floppy and lethargic.
  • severe abdominal pain.
  • a cut that is gaping or losing a lot of blood, have amputated a finger or if there is something embedded in the wound.
  • a leg or arm injury and can’t use the limb.
  • swallowed poison or tablets and are not showing any adverse effects (111 can give you advice from the poisons database). If they are behaving strangely or experiencing any symptoms from the poison, call an ambulance immediately.

Go to your family doctor

For other less serious and non-life-threatening medical concerns, contact your GP or phone 111 for medical advice.

 When to Call an Ambulance

Baby-Related Advice

If you are looking after a baby who has a serious illness or accident it is important to get medical attention quickly. The following symptoms should always be treated as serious and an ambulance called immediately.

Worrying Symptoms:

  • A high-pitched, weak or continuous cry.
  • A lack of responsiveness, lethargy or floppiness.
  • A bulging fontanel (the soft spot on a baby’s head).
  • Not drinking for more than eight hours (taking solid food is not as important).
  • A temperature of over 38°C if the baby is less than three months old, over 39°C if the baby is 3-6 months old or a raised temperature that you are unable to bring down.
  • A high temperature with cold feet and hands.
  • Fits, convulsions or seizures.
  • Turning blue, very pale, mottled or ashen.
  • Difficulty breathing, fast breathing or grunting while breathing.
  • Being unusually drowsy, hard to wake up or not seeming to know you.
  • A spotty, purple-red rash anywhere on the body that does not fade when you push a glass against it. (A symptom of meningitis.)
  • Repeated vomiting or bile-stained (green) vomiting.

Most importantly, trust your instincts. If you are seriously worried, administer appropriate first aid and get medical help immediately.

First Aid for Life and onlinefirstaid.com provide this information for guidance and it is not in any way a substitute for medical advice. First Aid for Life is not responsible or liable for any diagnosis made or actions taken based on this information. The best way to be prepared for action in an emergency is to attend a practical first aid course or do one online.

Emma Hammett
Author: Emma Hammett