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Here’s What You Should Know About These 5 Common Medical Emergencies

Disclaimer: I became an EMT the summer before my freshman year of college and was certified in Connecticut and New York. I was also nationally registered, and am currently working on my certification in Massachusetts. There are a lot of things that you, as a bystander, can do to aid in a medical emergency. But if you act blindly, or based on something you saw in a movie or on TV, you could cause further damage. 

You may have reached this point in your life without facing a medical emergency, but there’s a good chance that you won’t live your whole life that way. Medical emergencies happen every day, anywhere, to all kinds of people, and if you ever find yourself in a life or death situation you may make snap decisions if you don’t have any experience. Reacting on instinct, or based on a fictitious plotline you saw last week, could further hurt who you’re trying to help, and you could even end up in need of assistance as well. 

We all love our weekly dose of Grey’s Anatomy, but have you ever been involved in a true medical emergency? Did you know how to react? We all love those memes where someone calls for a doctor and you step forward thanks to your twelve years of Grey’s "training,” but it’s easy to forget that what happens on TV or in our fantasies is not reality. If somebody calls for help, 9-1-1 should always be the number one step.

Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol poisoning is highly common among the first-year collegiate population, but that doesn’t mean it can’t affect somebody at the bar on a Friday night or at Sunday’s football game. If you’re with somebody that has been drinking heavily and they pass out, you should never lay them down to “sleep it off.” Alcohol toxicity can lead to intense confusion, seizures, cyanosis (blue-tinted skin, especially lips or fingertips), slow breathing, low body temperatures and unconsciousness. It’s a common misconception that all one needs is sleep; if they’ve overdosed on alcohol, they could get sick and choke or fall into a state of hypothermic shock if no one is there to catch it. Not seeking medical attention if you can’t wake them could kill them. And for those still in college and afraid of repercussions: Most schools have policies in place that protect you if you call for help.


There are a couple of common misconceptions about aiding somebody who is seizing, such as sticking a wallet in their mouth or holding them down. The need for a bite block generally stems from the myth that the individual could swallow their tongue, but that’s impossible. And if you try to pry open their clenched jaw, you could injure them or yourself. In fact, it’s possible that they could bite your finger off, as they have no control over their jaw. You could also cause injuries to the individual or yourself if you attempt to hold them stationary while they’re seizing.

When somebody is seizing, it’s important to try to cushion their body and roll them onto their side (so that they don’t choke if they vomit), but you shouldn’t try to constrict them at all. Individuals living with epilepsy often have medical bracelets on that ask for any bystanders to refrain from calling an ambulance, but if you don’t know if an individual has epilepsy, or if a seizure lasts for more than five minutes, it’s always better to be on the safe side. Head injuries, alcohol poisoning, drug overdoses and certain prescription drugs or drug and alcohol combinations can lead to seizures, too.

Cardiac Arrest

Heart attacks can be caused by any number of things, from drugs to arterial blockages to undiagnosed congenital heart defects, and can happen to anyone. While it doesn’t happen regularly, congenital heart defects have been known to take the lives of young athletes, even children, while playing their sport. Because of age in instances like this, cardiac arrest is not always the first suspect, but 100-150 young athletes die in the US every year according to research published by the American Heart Association. Gender also plays a role in heart attacks; while the knowledge that they often present differently in women has become more commonly known in recent years, many people still overlook symptoms in women because they’re looking for the wrong thing. We expect the description of an elephant sitting on their chest, but women are more likely than men to feel that pain elsewhere, either instead of or in addition to, including their jaw, arm, or neck and back.

Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs) are found in most public buildings, but do you know how to use one? They come with instructions on them, and most have auditory instructions once you have them in place and activated, but in the heat of action when someone is in cardiac arrest, having to stop and take the time to follow the instructions as you’re going can mean life or death for the victim. Taking the time to familiarize yourself with the AED when there is not an emergency occurring could save somebody’s life, from the placement of the pads next to and beneath the heart to how a woman in a wired bra could be burned.

CPR is also going to be a necessity in trying to save someone’s life; it keeps oxygen moving to the brain and may be able to induce the heart’s rhythm to be successfully corrected by an AED. If there is no rhythm at all, there’s little to no chance of saving someone. Another thing you may not know is that, when done correctly, CPR can crack the ribcage. It’s not uncommon to hear and feel that occurring as you are performing CPR if you’re doing it right, about two inches deep with the heel of your hand. The American Heart Association and the Red Cross both offer basic CPR courses, which can teach you exactly what to do.

Head Injuries

When somebody has been in an accident or slips and falls, your first instinct may be to help the victims up as soon as you can, but if the environment does not present a danger to keep them as they are it’s important to do so until emergency personnel arrive. While an individual may appear fine after a crash or a tumble, they could have a neck, head or spinal injury that could be aggravated by moving them. EMTs will want to check their pupils before moving them, to gauge if their brain could be bleeding, and will use backboards, KEDs (a seated extraction device) and straps to keep them stable. It’s important to keep somebody that has hit their head from rolling, standing or even turning to look at something.


Deep wounds can come about from kitchen accidents, car crashes or fights, and it can be difficult to get heavy bleeding under control. In nearly any show or movie with an injury like this, a bystander immediately rips off a bit of his shirt or takes off his tie or belt and creates a tourniquet. In actuality, a tourniquet should be the last resort. If a medical professional is not nearby to control the bleeding and remove the tourniquet, it could lead to the need for an amputation. Tourniquets cut off circulation almost completely, and can kill the limb if left on for too long. A hunk of cloth and immense pressure on the wound should always be the first step (after making sure 911 has been called).

You may live your life without ever being on the frontline of a medical emergency, but there’s a good chance you won’t. We’re not suggesting you run out and become an EMT, but we do suggest educating yourself about emergency response; bystanders are the first line of defense between a medical emergency and medical professionals. They’re usually the ones calling 911 (which should always be your first step), and they can be the ones that initiate the steps to saving somebody’s life before professionals arrive on scene. But you can only be an effective active bystander if you make yourself aware of the most common medical emergencies and the things you have the power to do when involved in one. EMT classes are easily accessible if that’s something you’re interested in, but they can be long and expensive. First Aid and CPR courses can usually be completed in a day, and are often offered by local fire stations, hospitals, or alongside EMT courses, and are packed with the information you need to become an active bystander.

Sammi is the Lifestyle Editor at HerCampus.com, assisting with content strategy across sections. She's been a member of Her Campus since her Social Media Manager and Senior Editor days at Her Campus at Siena, where she graduated with a degree in Biology of all things. She moonlights as an EMT, and in her free time, she can be found playing post-apocalyptic video games, organizing her unreasonably large lipstick collection, learning "All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor's Version) (From The Vault)" on her guitar, or planning her next trip to Broadway.
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