Health emergencies are often unexpected, and you never know when you'll be called upon to help. If a friend or a loved one has a chronic condition, it's important to be prepared should he or she suffer a disabling episode. Here's what to do—and what not to do—during emergencies for people dealing with one of these four conditions…


When the brain experiences abnormal electrical impulses, a seizure can result. For people with epilepsy, these seizures may occur on a regular basis. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 2.3 million adults and nearly half a million children in the United States have epilepsy, which may result from lack of oxygen at birth, brain trauma, brain infections, or stroke. People having a seizure may do any or all of the following: fall down, drool or froth at the mouth, shake, clench their teeth, twitch and jerk, and lose control of their bladders or bowels.

  • What to do: Catch the person if he's falling, and lie him down and cushion his head. Turn him on his side in case he vomits; this will prevent him from choking on it. If you're not at all familiar with dealing with seizures, call 911. Similarly, if the seizure lasts more than two minutes, or if the person doesn't regain consciousness after the seizure, call 911.
  • What not to do: Restrain the person in any way, move the person, or put anything in his mouth. Don't try to stop the seizure, as it is involuntary and he will not respond to your efforts.


One of the challenges of living with diabetes is keeping blood sugar levels stable. Hypoglycemia occurs when blood sugar levels are too low, and it can happen when a person takes too much insulin or other diabetes medications, and doesn't eat enough to balance out that insulin infusion. According to Stephen Schenkel, MD, chair of the department of emergency medicine at Mercy Medical Center, Baltimore, hypoglycemia is called "the great masquerader" because its varied symptoms can mimic those of many other maladies and include feeling shaky, dizzy, sweaty, anxious and confused.

  • What to do: Offer food or drink that has carbohydrates, such as fruit juice, regular soda, or several hard candies. If the person is carrying glucose tablets, have her take enough to equal 15 grams of carbohydrates. She should also check her blood glucose (sugar) level with a testing meter to make sure it rises after eating or drinking.
  • What not to do: Ignore hypoglycemia if it persists after ingesting carbohydrates. At this point, a doctor should be consulted.


This life-threatening allergic reaction can as a result of exposure to any one of a number of allergens, from insect stings to certain foods to antibiotics. Patients with anaphylaxis have trouble breathing and experience a dramatic drop in blood pressure. Untreated, the process can be fatal: More than 200 people in the United States die each year as a result of food-related anaphylaxis, and more than 100 die as a result of anaphylaxis after an insect sting.

  • What to do: Call 911 immediately, as anaphylaxis can progress quickly. Determine whether the person is carrying an epinephrine autoinjector, which can quickly deliver a shot of epinephrine (adrenaline to help relax the muscles in the airways and tighten the blood vessels, according to MedlinePlus (Many people with serious allergies carry epinephrine autoinjectors in case of emergency.) If the person can’t use the autoinjector herself, inject the epinephrine, ideally into her thigh—through clothing is fine.

    After administering the injection, have the person lie down and cover her with a blanket. Turn her on her side in case she vomits. Begin CPR if she stops breathing, coughing, or moving.
  • What not to do: Leave her alone even after her symptoms subside, as anaphylaxis symptoms can return. Make sure she gets prompt medical attention.

Asthma Attack

About 25 million people in this country suffer from asthma, and the condition is responsible for one-quarter of all emergency-room visits each year. Roughly 3,300 people die each year as a result of asthma attacks.

  • What to do: Try to calm down the asthma patient, as panicking can make it harder to breathe. And move her away from the irritant (dog, cat, pollutant, etc.) that triggered the attack.

    Also try bringing her into an air-conditioned environment, Schenkel says, since "Air-conditioned air is also filtered air." Even an air-conditioned vehicle will do, as long as the windows and doors are closed to keep out particles that may exacerbate the problem. Ask her what her asthma action plan is. If she has an inhaler, help her get it out and use it. Call 911 if her symptoms aren't improving.
  • What not to do: Put your friend in a prone (lying-down) position, as this will make it harder for her to breathe.

Stephen Schenkel, MD, reviewed this story.


Stephen Schenkel, MD. Phone conversation with source, September 27, 2014. 

"Hypoglycemia." National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse (NDIC). Accessed September 29, 2014.

"Hypoglycemia (Low Blood Glucose)." American Diabetes Association. Accessed October 1, 2014.

"Allergy Facts and Figures." Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Accessed September 22, 2014.

"Asthma Statistics." American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology. Accessed September 24, 2014

"Asthma Facts and Figures." Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Accessed September 24, 2014.

"Anaphylaxis: First Aid." Mayo Clinic. Accessed September 17, 2014.

"Seizures." MedlinePlus/National Institutes of Health. Accessed September 22, 2014.

"Epilepsy." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed September 22, 2014.

"Grand Mal Seizure: Symptoms." Mayo Clinic. Accessed September 17, 2014.

"Epinephrine Injection." MedlinePlus. Page last revised December 15, 2012.