We often talk about how to choose between the emergency room (ER) or urgent care. And there are some common summer situations when you may have to make that choice.

Here are some examples and tips for when you likely need to call 911 or go to the nearest ER. 

Stings and Bites

Stings or bites are usually minor injuries. The passing jellyfish encounter at the beach or stepping on a bee in the grass may just result in a little redness and swelling and nothing more. You may need to apply a paste or ointment to reduce pain or itching.

What if things get a bit more serious?

  • What if it wasn’t just one jellyfish or one bee, but a swarm?
  • What if someone has an allergic reaction with face or tongue swelling?
  • What if animals, perhaps raccoons or bats, go on the warpath? They might have rabies or dangerous bacteria in their bite.

Seek medical care or call 911 if the person who was bitten or stung:

  • Has trouble breathing
  • Starts to swell at the lips, eyelids or throat
  • Becomes dizzy, faint or confused
  • Gets a rapid heartbeat
  • Gets cramps or starts vomiting

Poisonous Plants

When summer hikes take us through wild plant growth, “Leaves in three, let it be” warns us about poison ivy.

But many of us have some poisonous plants in our own yards. Take hemlock for example — do you know that it looks like a gigantic version of Queen Anne’s lace to the untrained eye?

The slightest touch of some plants can cause a reaction. Reactions to poisonous plants can vary from very mild to severe.

More serious reactions that require emergency treatment can happen when people:

  • Are exposed over more than a quarter of their body
  • Accidentally eat a poisonous plant
  • Accidentally inhale elements of a plant when they burn plants in a fire


We should always wear sunscreen when we’re outdoors. But what happens if you do get a sunburn? According to the Mayo Clinic, you may need to see a doctor if:

  • The sunburn is severe, covers a large part of your body and you have blisters
  • You have swelling, pus or red streaks leading from a blister (these can be signs of infection)
  • Your sunburn doesn’t get better with care at home

You may need to go to urgent care or ask your doctor if you should head to the ER if you also have:

  • High fever
  • Headache
  • Severe pain
  • Dehydration
  • Confusion
  • Nausea or chills


Summer heat can do real harm. Beyond severe sunburns that can blister and peel, heat exhaustion or heat stroke can get serious quickly. And don’t ever leave children or pets in a car in the summer. For a more in depth look at this issue, read Summer Heat Safety Reminders.

Summer Stunts Gone Wrong

Many people love a good belly flop or cannon ball. Success may be measured by splash zone and how loud it is when you hit the water. Sometimes, though, things go wrong. Even Olympic divers can hit their heads on a diving board.

Just like stings and bites and poisonous plant exposure, blows to the head, bumps, cuts or other injuries vary in severity. You may need to call 911 if you have signs of concussion. The degree of pain, discoloration or blood loss can also indicate that you should call 911 or go to the ER.

Some signs that you need to go to the ER or call 911 include:

  • Any life-threatening or disabling condition
  • Sudden or unexplained loss of consciousness
  • Chest pain; numbness in the face, arm or leg; difficulty speaking
  • Not breathing; severe shortness of breath
  • High fever with stiff neck, mental confusion or difficulty breathing
  • Coughing up or vomiting blood
  • Cut or wound that won’t stop bleeding
  • Major injuries
  • Possible broken bones or head injury

Water Safety

If your family is beating the heat with a swim, be sure to:

  • Swim only in areas designated for swimming
  • Stay within arm’s reach of young kids, and always watch them
  • Choose someone to watch the water when people are in the pool
  • Enforce rules such as “no diving” and “don’t swim alone”

If someone needs to be revived coming out of the water, call 911 or go to the ER immediately. Even if people are revived, they can still drown. This is called secondary or delayed drowning.

Symptoms such as fatigue and irritability can happen hours after the incident and might seem like just tiredness following a big day. Learn the warning signs of secondary drowning.

The Bottom Line: Watch for Symptoms that Signal “Core Processing”

In these various examples of summertime nature vs. man injuries, be on the lookout for problems with a person’s most basic system functions:

  • Can you breathe, speak and swallow?
  • Can you sit, stand and walk without help?
  • Can you see, hear or feel?

If the answer to any of these most basic questions is “no,” call 911 and seek emergency help.