An ABC of the most common emergencies – symptoms, triggers and the right thing to do in an emergency.
In a medical emergency, every second counts. People providing help must act swiftly but in a calm and considered way. The traffic light approach applies:
In the «First Aid App» issued by the Swiss Red Cross (SRC), you will find life-saving information to use in an emergency.
Different emergencies require different responses. Find out the most important information about the most frequent types of emergency.
Rash, hives, redness of the skin and/or eyes, itching, swelling, runny nose, sneezing, coughing, shortness of breath, drop in blood pressure, loss of consciousness, vomiting, diarrhoea and dizziness
Foods, insect stings, medications, latex
Call the emergency number 144, give a pre-filled adrenalin injection and/or administer emergency medication. Keep the person calm, put them in the recovery position if necessary. If the person is not breathing, start resuscitation immediately.
People with known allergies (causing anaphylaxis) should always carry an adrenalin pen and emergency medication with them.
Difficulty breathing, difficulty speaking, coughing, wheezing , restlessness and anxiety, sweating
Upper respiratory tract infections, exposure to allergens (e.g. dust or pollen), cold air, physical strain, emotional excitement
Keep the affected person sitting upright in a comfortable position, assist them in using their medication, keep them calm. If the attack persists: call the emergency number 144.
Asthma sufferers should be able to let you know if they are having an attack and what medication they need.
Put pressure on the wound, rinse smaller wounds, do not remove foreign bodies. In the event of severe bleeding: call the emergency number 144
Avoid contact with other people’s blood wherever possible. Stop any bleeding.
Bruising, pain, swelling, unnatural position
Keep injured body part still.
→ If the person is unable to move by themselves: call the emergency number 144
Reddening of the skin, feelings of warmth or heat, itching, pain or even complete numbness, blisters, charring, destruction of the skin
Sunburn, hot liquids, hot objects
Cool the wound with water (about 20 degrees), dress the wound with a sterile dressing. If medical treatment is necessary, the wound must be covered with plastic (household cling film). Do not burst blisters.
→ For burns to the face, genitals, joints and large areas of the body (or if underlying tissue layer becomes visible): call the emergency number 144.
Shortness of breath, coughing, retching, wheezing, blue discolouration of the lips, loss of consciousness
Always call the emergency number.
Encourage the person to cough, give five hard slaps between their shoulder blades as they bend forwards, perform five upper abdominal compressions (Heimlich manoeuvre). If the person stops breathing, start chest compression immediately.
Dizziness, loss of consciousness lasting several minutes, headache, confusion, nausea, blurred vision, memory loss
Lie the affected person down, call the emergency number 144, watch for changes in condition.
In the event of concussion, there is a risk of increased pressure on the brain.
Symptoms can vary widely: feelings of hunger, cramps, clammy skin, profuse sweating, drowsiness, weakness, sudden loss of consciousness
Blood sugar level too low (hypoglycaemia); blood sugar level too high (hyperglycaemia)
→ In the event of loss of consciousness or shortness of breath: call the emergency number 144
Check blood sugar levels regularly.
Open, staring, empty or rolling eyes, convulsions, impaired movement or consciousness
Do not restrain the affected person. Do not attempt to intervene in the seizure. Place a blanket under their head to reduce the risk of injury. Place the affected person in the recovery position.
→ If they have no prior history of seizures or if the attack is unusually severe or long-lasting: call the emergency number 144
Some people may wear or carry a specific item to identify themselves and their particular disorder (an ID, bracelet or chain).
Deposits and blockages in the coronary arteries that affect the blood supply to the heart muscle
Call the emergency number 144, avoid any physical exertion, elevate the upper body, adopt a comfortable position. Use personal emergency medication such as nitroglycerin spray. In the event of cardiac arrest (person is no longer responding or breathing), start chest compression immediately or use a defibrillator.
Severe headaches and dizziness, high fever, feelings of extreme thirst, rapid and weak pulse, drop in blood pressure, state of exhaustion, reduced consciousness or loss of consciousness
High ambient temperatures and humidity, loss of body fluids owing to intense physical activity
Call the emergency number 144, move the affected person to a cooler location. Remove any tight-fitting clothing, open their clothing, put cool/damp cloths on their skin, fan them. Slowly give the person cool water to drink, keep their upper body in an upright position. If their blood pressure drops: lie them down and prop their legs up.
Shivering, cold/pale skin, rapid breathing, raised pulse, low body temperature
Low ambient temperature, wind, wetness, prolonged exposure to cold, exhaustion
Call the emergency number 144, keep the affected person calm and warm them up slowly with a blanket or thermal foil sheet, warm drinks, high-energy food. Put on dry and warm clothes. Find a place to shelter that is out of the wind.
Nausea and vomiting, intoxication, drowsiness, coughing, breathing difficulties, loss of consciousness, abdominal cramps
Medications, chemicals, plants, stimulants and drugs
Establish what has been taken, when, and how much. Call the toxicological information centre number 145.
→ In the event of loss of consciousness, shortness of breath or a possible suicide attempt: call the emergency number 144.
Do not induce vomiting.
Rapid pulse, low blood pressure, cold sweat, cool hands and legs, rapid breathing, restlessness or change in state of consciousness
Loss of fluid (bleeding, diarrhoea/vomiting), pulmonary embolism, heart attack, arrhythmia, allergies, blood poisoning and spinal cord injuries
Lie the affected person down flat, treat any bleeding or injury, remove any shock triggers. Ensure that the person does not become hypothermic or overheated. Do not give them anything to eat or drink, call the emergency number 144.
Pain, swelling, bruising, restrictions of movement
Abrupt movements, trips and falls, violent external impact
Apply RICE rule, R: rest (keep still); I: ice (cool); C: compression (compression bandage); E: elevation
Strains affect muscles, sprains affect joints.
Hemiplegia (weakness of one side of the face, one arm and/or leg), sensitivity disorders (numbness), visual disorders (e.g. double vision), unclear, slurred speech, headaches (with cerebral haemorrhage), balance impairments, dizziness, difficulty finding the right words, impaired orientation and memory loss
Insufficient blood flow to the brain.
FAST check → F (Face): Does the affected person have weakness on one side of their face? A (Arms): Can the person raise both arms? S (Speech): Can you understand what they are saying? T (Time): Call the emergency number 144 as quickly as possible.
If possible, lie the affected person down flat. Do not give them anything to eat or drink, and do not administer any blood-thinning medication.
The list of symptoms provided here is not exhaustive.
André Roggli works as the interim head of «Education and Volunteer Management» at the Samaritans Switzerland – a rescue organisation of the Swiss Red Cross. In his position as a first aid training expert, he trains lay people from a wide variety of backgrounds. He regularly provides first aid services in organisations and at events. André Roggli gave the editorial team advice and input for this article.