Sources of NHS Help When Unwell

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When you are ill, it can be difficult to know where you should go or whom you should call. This leaflet sets out the options available through the NHS in the UK. It tries to make it clear where you should go in different situations. What you should do depends on how seriously ill you are and how urgently you need to be seen. In other countries, the system is likely to be different, and this information will not apply. However, this leaflet does explain what care you can get on the NHS if you are not a UK resident.

See separate leaflet called NHS and Other Care Options for more information about healthcare options in the UK.

In an emergency, call 999. This is an immediate ambulance response for serious or life-threatening injury or illness. Examples of conditions for which it would be appropriate to call an ambulance include:

  • Suspected stroke.
  • Severe chest pain and/or breathing difficulty.
  • Choking.
  • Being unconscious.
  • Heavy bleeding which you cannot stop.
  • Serious injuries following a road traffic accident.
  • Severe allergic reactions.
  • Severe burns.

If you have a very severe or life-threatening injury or condition, you may also go to your nearest Accident and Emergency (A&E) department. Usually when you call an ambulance, if they consider your condition serious, they will take you to the nearest A&E. You may also choose to go there directly yourself if someone can take you and if it is safe to do so.

Make an appointment with your GP if you are unwell or need medical advice. GP surgeries offer "urgent" appointments for problems which need to be dealt with that day. This might include, for example:

  • Having a high temperature (fever).
  • Rashes.
  • Chest infections.
  • Urine infections.
  • Being in pain.

If your medical problem cannot wait until you can see/talk to your GP but it is not so urgent as to require a 999 call, call 111. You may also call 111 if you are not sure where is best to go for treatment. This is the NHS advice line but the number depends on where you live:

  • In England: NHS-111 advice line, dial 111.
  • In Scotland: NHS 24 advice line, also dial 111.
  • In Wales: NHS Direct Wales advice line, dial 0845 46 47.
  • In Northern Ireland: varies, see the out of hours service details.

Alternatively, if your GP surgery is closed and your problem cannot wait, you could attend your nearest urgent care centre or walk-in centre. You can find your nearest centre on the UK NHS websites. Examples of problems which can be dealt with include:

  • If you are concerned about a rash on yourself or your child.
  • If you are concerned about a child with a temperature.
  • If you or your child has severe earache.
  • You think you have a urinary tract infection.
  • You have a wound which you think might be infected.
  • Minor injuries:
    • Cuts.
    • Burns.
    • Bites.
    • Minor head injuries.
    • Sprains.
    • Suspected broken bones (fractures).

For general medical care and advice, make an appointment at your GP surgery. Depending on your problem, you may be seen by a doctor, a nurse, or another healthcare professional. GPs deal with a huge range of health-related problems and are generally the first port of call when you are unwell.

For minor cuts, sprains, mild scalds, or other less serious injuries, go to a minor injuries unit. Minor injury units will usually be able to arrange an X-ray if necessary to rule out a broken bone (fracture). They will be able to stitch, bandage, arrange crutches, etc, as necessary. For more serious injuries, you should attend an A&E department.

For advice about your medication, or for advice about self-help remedies for minor ailments, go to your local pharmacy. Pharmacists are experts in medicines. If you have a question about your medication, how to take it, or side-effects, a pharmacist will be able to help. They can advise on self-help remedies and on medication which does not need a prescription. For many minor illnesses, such as sore throats, mouth ulcers, or coughs and colds, you may be able to manage this yourself without medical advice. A pharmacist may help with some advice about over-the-counter medication which may relieve your symptoms.

If you have an urgent dental problem and are registered with a dentist, you should contact your usual dentist for advice. If you are not registered with a dentist, or your dental surgery is closed, you should try one of the following:

  • Call 111 (in England and Scotland. See 'urgent medical problems' above for details of the number in Wales and Northern Ireland).
  • Call your dentist and listen to the message on the answering machine. It should have the number to contact in an emergency for out-of-hours dental care.
  • Go to A&E if you have a serious dental problem such as:
    • Pain which will not settle despite painkillers.
    • Heavy bleeding from your mouth.
    • Trauma to your teeth, mouth or jaw from an injury.

If you are visiting the UK, you may have to pay for any medical treatment you need. Your travel or medical insurance may cover this.

Those who will NOT be charged for NHS treatment include:

  • Visitors from the European Economic Area (EEA) or Switzerland. You will need a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) from your home country (unless you are from Switzerland). If you do not have an EHIC you may be charged for treatment. (The EEA includes all countries from the European Union (EU), Iceland, Norway and Lichtenstein. For many medical problems, there is a reciprocal arrangement with these countries, and with Switzerland. Visitors can access care in each other's country. This does not include planned treatment.)
  • People who need to be seen in the A&E department.
  • People who need an ambulance for an emergency.
  • People who need family planning services.
  • People who need hospital treatment for most infectious diseases, including sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
  • People who need hospital treatment for a physical or mental condition caused by torture, female genital mutilation (FGM), domestic violence or sexual violence.
  • People granted refugee status in the UK, or seeking asylum.
  • People needing compulsory psychiatric treatment.
  • People who are working or living abroad because they are members of the armed forces, on government work, etc.

For full details for visitors accessing healthcare, please look on the individual websites for NHS England, NHS Scotland, NHS Wales and the NHS in Northern Ireland.

See separate leaflet called NHS and Other Care Options for more information about healthcare options in the UK.

Original Author:
Dr Mary Harding
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Dr Hayley Willacy
Document ID:
29270 (v1)
Last Checked:
21/06/2016
Next Review:
21/06/2019
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