When is an emergency not an emergency?

None of us want to trouble the doctor for no reason - but what if you delay too long and end up more ill as a result? We know this applies to cancer- long-term survival rates for cancer are improving all the time, but you're still much more likely to beat it if you're diagnosed and treated at an early stage.

Obviously, if there's any chance that you're having a heart attack or a stroke, time is of the essence. These days we know that much of the damage from stroke can be reduced in some people by really rapid treatment with 'clot-busting' drugs - so think FAST (is their Face drooping on one side? Is one Arm weak? Is Speech slurred or muddled? Time to call 999 now!). But medical problems that wouldn't usually be emergencies can be more dangerous in certain people, too - for instance, older people can be more vulnerable to dehydration from tummy bugs. Read on for more advice.

Sore throats

A sore throat with a cough or cold is almost always caused by a virus, and simple painkillers and time will do the trick. The symptoms to watch out for as far as sore throats are concerned are a combination of sore throat without a cough; fever; swollen, tender glands on the front of your neck; and white spots on the back of your throat (shine a torch in and say 'aaah'). If you have at least three of these (two for under-15s) see a doctor in case you need antibiotics. Otherwise, speak to your pharmacist about over-the-counter remedies to ease symptoms until your immune system fights off the infection.


There are some eye conditions that can be sight-threatening if you don't get really urgent help. They include:

  • An acutely painful red eye, especially if you wear contact lenses, feel sick or generally unwell
  • Any sudden loss of vision or deterioration in vision
  • Shadows or a 'curtain' across your field of vision, which may come with flashing lights or black specks floating across your eyeline
  • Getting chemicals splashed in your eye, or any cut to your eyeball.

Far more common are styes (a sore, swollen spot at the edge of your eyelid) or conjunctivitis (sore but not painful pinkish eye, often with sticky discharge but no eyesight change) . These often settle on their own, or your pharmacist can offer advice.


Maybe your mother told you it was true, but just because you're coughing up green or yellow phlegm really doesn't mean you need antibiotics! The exception is if you have a chronic lung condition like COPD and sometimes asthma. Most coughs are miserable but they're caused by viruses and settle on their own. However, 'red flags' that suggest something more serious is going on include coughing up blood or rusty sputum; shortness of breath or wheezing; sharp stabbing chest pain when you breathe; coughing for more than three weeks; or losing weight without meaning to.

Back pain

Most of us get back pain at some point. The most common kind, 'simple' back pain, can be incredibly painful but usually settles with no ill effects within a few weeks. In the meantime, keeping active as much as you can and taking anti-inflammatory tablets and painkillers (unless there's a medical reason you shouldn't) will make a big difference. But you do need to seek urgent help if you have:

  • Had a major accident or fall recently, or have a history of osteoporosis or cancer
  • Pain worse lying down or at night
  • Pain in your spine behind your rib cage
  • Pain down your legs that's worse than the pain in your back
  • Numbness round your bottom or new-onset problems with your waterworks or bowels since you had back pain.

Don't let this one become an emergency!

Every year, GPs are swamped at the 11th hour with requests for repeat prescriptions to see people through the holiday period - and with the late May bank holiday coming up, we're bracing ourselves. Most practices aim to issue prescriptions within two working days, but this could take longer if there are bank holidays or queries with your request. So check your regular tablets in plenty of time and do your GP a favour - let your practice know sooner rather than later!

With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.