A hospital's accident and emergency (A&E) department is for patients with serious or life-threatening conditions, and people need to think about the most appropriate place to go for treatment if they become unwell.
When to go to A&E
If someone is obviously in danger – for example, they are experiencing chest pain, blacking out, bleeding, choking or the early symptoms of a stroke – they should be taken to hospital as quickly as possible.
Serious allergic reactions, severe burns, difficulty breathing or severe abdominal pain down one side are also all reasons to seek treatment at A&E and call an ambulance, if necessary.
When it's not an emergency
However, if it's not an emergency, consider some of the other options below.
NHS 111: Service for non-emergency medical help. It is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and is staffed by fully trained advisors and experienced clinicians, just dial 111.
Walk-in centres and minor injuries units: For treatment of cuts, bruises, minor infections, stomach upsets, strains and skin complaints. No need to book, you can just turn up without an appointment and you will be seen.
Out-of-hours GP service: Outside normal surgery hours you can still phone your GP practice and you'll usually be directed to an out-of-hours service. The out-of-hours period operates when your GP is closed, at weekends and on bank holidays. You can also call 111 when your GP surgery is closed.
Urgent care centres: These treatment centres are GP-led and open for at least 12 hours a day, every day of the week (including bank holidays). Urgent care centres can treat minor and moderate illnesses and injuries, with many being able to treat lacerations that require stitching. Some are even able to can carry out X-rays, CT scans and treat serious injuries.
Pharmacists: They are experts in providing medical information and advice, and they could help more than you think. You can just drop in to any pharmacy or chemist to see your pharmacist, and many have private consultation areas. They can easily provide advice and support on issues like diarrhoea, headache, skin irritations, a painful cough or a runny nose. Things that do not usually warrant a visit to A&E, and can be treated at home. They can also advise on any over the counter remedies or medicines available and, if you need specialist medical advice, they can point you in the right direction.
Should I call 999?
Patients unsure whether they should go to A&E should avoid calling the emergency services, but call the NHS non-emergency number, 111, instead.
A trained operator supported by nurses and paramedics will ask questions about symptoms and can either call an ambulance or direct patients to their nearest out-of-hours doctor, urgent care centre or late-opening chemist if needed.
Calling 111 is free from both landlines and mobile phones and is available 24 hours a day, all year round.
Make an appointment with your GP
If you have a persistent, but non-emergency health problem, such as ear pain, stomach ache, frequent vomiting or back ache, don’t go to hospital but make an appointment with your GP.
If your local GP practice is closed, search for your nearest walk-in or urgent care centre on the NHS Choices website.
The message is simple. if you have a serious medical emergency, go to A&E, or dial 999. For everything else, call your GP, if your GP is closed, dial 111.