Six preventive tips to stay out of the emergency department

UAB experts offer tips on preventive steps you can take to stay healthy and avoid a visit to the emergency department.

stream ER signage 20200428 004 5935UAB experts offer tips on preventive steps you can take to stay healthy and avoid a visit to the emergency department.Hospital emergency departments are busy places throughout the year. Currently, wait times are up, and space is limited at emergency departments across Alabama.

Fortunately, UAB Medicine offers several alternative care options for patients with conditions or illnesses that, while serious, may not require the services of an emergency department. On top of that, physicians from the University of Alabama at Birmingham Marnix E. Heersink School of Medicine say there are steps people can take that may help them avoid the emergency department altogether.

Get an annual checkup

Emergency department staff handle a variety of conditions daily, but some of these could have been prevented or discovered earlier through annual checkups. At annual visits, doctors can get an overall snapshot of the patient’s health; they can better understand how a patient’s organs are functioning; determine if the patient is experiencing any vitamin deficiencies; and test for certain markers of diseases and health conditions such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease that may cause the patient problems down the road.

“Getting a yearly checkup gives your doctor the opportunity to do necessary screenings and to potentially identify problems that put you at risk for things like obesity and hypertension,” said Stephen Russell, M.D., a professor in the Department of Medicine and physician at UAB Medicine Leeds. “When you attend your yearly checkup, your doctor may be able to help you keep preventable illnesses from becoming a health crisis.” 

Do not skip health screenings

“During the pandemic, some people may have put their routine health care on pause, but it’s always a good time to get your screenings and checkups back on track,” Russell said. “By performing the recommended screenings, your doctor may be able to detect and treat certain diseases early before they become more severe and lead to a hospital visit.”

Some routine medical screenings recommended by the American Cancer Society include those for colon cancer, breast cancer, cervical cancer, prostate cancer and lung cancer. 

In addition to cancer screenings, Russell also recommends screenings for depression, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, sexually transmitted diseases, diabetes and osteoporosis. 

Stay up to date on vaccines

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends vaccines based on age, prior vaccinations, health, lifestyle, occupation, travel destinations and sexual activity; but everyone’s needs may be different based on these factors.

“Vaccines are one of the most convenient and safest preventive care measures available,” said Sumayah Abed, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine and family medicine physician at UAB Medicine Hoover Primary and Specialty Care. “Routine vaccinations prevent and minimize the effects of illnesses that could lead to unnecessary medical visits and hospitalizations.”

Since immunity from vaccines can wear off over time, it is important for everyone to stay up to date on any necessary booster doses and age-appropriate vaccines to help protect themselves and others from infectious diseases as they age. For a full list of age-appropriate vaccines for both children and adults, visit

Prioritize self-care

Mental health encompasses one’s emotional, psychological and social well-being. It is essential to overall health and quality of life and affects how one thinks, feels, acts and responds.

“Caring for your mental health is just as important as caring for your physical health,” Abed said. “Self-care can play a role in maintaining not only one’s physical health but one’s mental health as well and aids in supporting treatment and recovery for people with a mental illness.”

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, self-care simply means taking the time to do things that help people live well and improve their physical and mental health. Self-care can include anything from eating a balanced diet or aiming for at least 30 minutes of physical activity per day to taking time for stress-reducing activities such as yoga, meditation and breathing exercises. Learn more about what self-care is and the steps one can take to prioritize it here.

Sometimes circumstances adversely affect mental health, leading to greater distress that makes it harder to function and engage with the things that matter to each individual. When stress becomes too much for a person to bear, this may lead to a mental health crisis. In addition to prioritizing self-care, Abed says, it is helpful to know the signs of an impending mental health concern to know when to seek help.

Some symptoms that may indicate an impending mental health concern include:  

  • Low energy or fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Changes in appetite
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Feeling isolated, not wanting to leave the house and be with others
  • Feelings of guilt, sadness, hopelessness, helplessness or worry
  • Thoughts of suicide, self-harm or harm to others
  • Excessive drinking, substance abuse or smoking

“If you get to a point where managing your situation on your own is not possible, it is important to seek help,” Abed said. “Talk to a health care provider who can help you interpret your symptoms and connect you with the resources that you need. If you are thinking about hurting yourself or others, you need to go to the emergency department immediately. You can also call 911 or the National Suicide and Crisis Hotline at 988 for 24/7 assistance.”

Watch what you drink

Excessive alcohol use can lead to both short-term and long-term health risks.

Overdose of alcohol can occur when a person has blood alcohol content, or BAC, sufficient to produce impairments that increase the risk of harm. Age, drinking experience, gender, the amount of food eaten and even ethnicity can influence BAC. Critical signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Confusion
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Slow breathing
  • Irregular breathing
  • Hypothermia 

small ER decision tree graphic1Click image to enlarge.
Graphic by: Jody Potter
“As BAC increases, so does alcohol’s effects and the risk for harm,” said Megan Hays, Ph.D., associate professor and clinical psychologist in the UAB Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. “Even small increases in BAC can decrease coordination, make a person feel sick and impair judgment. This can lead to injury from falls or car crashes, leave one more vulnerable to sexual assault or other acts of violence, and increase the risk for unprotected, unintended intercourse.”

Immediate effects of excessive alcohol use can include alcohol poisoning and injuries such as motor vehicle crashes, falls, drownings and burns. Long-term effects include high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and liver disease; mental health problems such as depression and anxiety; and weakening of the immune system. Avoiding excessive alcohol use can reduce the risk of these short- and long-term health risks.

People often turn to drugs and alcohol when something in their life is missing or not working, so Abed says it is important for everyone to take steps to maintain a well-balanced life. Although a well-balanced life looks different for everyone, some areas that are worth examining are the time spent between work, leisure, family and alone time. The ability to prevent alcohol and substance misuse begins with maintaining a proper balance between each of these things. 

“Mental health conditions and substance misuse often go hand in hand,” Abed said. “In addition to maintaining a balanced life, everyone should prioritize their mental health and self-care to help reduce the chance of turning to drugs or alcohol to cope with any stressors.”

Learn more about the risks of alcohol and substance misuse and steps one can take to minimize the risks here.

Stay hydrated  

Excessive alcohol also leads to dehydration, causing the body to remove fluids from the blood through the renal system, including the kidneys and bladder, at a much quicker rate than other liquids. When dehydration occurs, the body does not have enough water and other fluids to carry out its normal function.

Some mild symptoms of dehydration include lethargy, confusion, fatigue, increased thirst, dry mouth, headache, constipation and decreased urinary output. Severe symptoms of dehydration include dizziness, rapid heartbeat, rapid breathing and fainting. Severe dehydration is a medical emergency and may lead to an emergency department visit.

To avoid dehydration, it is important for everyone to consume the recommended number of fluids each day — 3.7 liters of fluids a day for men and 2.7 liters of fluids a day for women. Although water is a great way to get these fluids in each day, beverages such as milk, juice and herbal teas can also help people stay hydrated. Water-rich foods can also help with hydration, including watermelon, oranges, grapefruits, celery, cucumbers, tomatoes, green peppers, spinach and lettuce.

“By consuming enough water and hydrating foods, especially when you are out in the heat or being physically active, you can meet your body’s hydration needs and avoid a visit to the emergency department,” Russell said.

Learn more about how steps one can take to stay hydrated here.

Take advantage of other resources available

“For non-emergent situations, there are other resources are available that may can help you avoid a visit to the emergency department,” Russell said.

All patients of UAB Medicine have access to their health care team by calling 205-934-3411 or sending a message to their provider through the UAB Medicine patient portal.

“If you are not feeling well and think you need a higher level of care than at-home remedies, you can easily access your medical provider through these channels,” Russell said. “You can also utilize UAB eMedicine, where a trained team of medical professionals is available to help you sort through your symptoms. If you are ever unsure about whether you are experiencing a medical emergency, we recommend going to the nearest emergency department.”

UAB eMedicine offers two types of on-demand urgent care options, including an on-demand urgent care online questionnaire where patients can fill out a short form and get a diagnosis and treatment for routine illnesses and common conditions. Patients can also set up an on-demand urgent care video visit that involves a health care provider who will evaluate symptoms, make a diagnosis, recommend treatment and send prescriptions to the patient’s pharmacy.

In addition to UAB eMedicine, many UAB physicians offer scheduled clinic video visits where patients can address their concerns directly with their primary care provider, allowing patients to avoid the drive and long wait times altogether.

By taking preventive steps such as annual checkups, medical screenings and staying up to date on vaccines, patients with non-emergent medical conditions can avoid a trip to the emergency department.  

To learn more about all the services UAB Medicine provides, visit