Skip to main content

When to go to A&E

An A&E department (also known as emergency department or casualty) deals with genuine life-threatening emergencies, such as:

  • loss of consciousness
  • a sudden confused state
  • fits that are not stopping
  • chest pain
  • breathing difficulties
  • severe bleeding that cannot be stopped
  • severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis)
  • severe burns or scalds
  • stroke
  • major trauma such as a road traffic collision
  • feelings of self-harm or suicide

Less severe injuries can be treated in urgent treatment centres (walk-in centres or minor injury units).

Information:

If you're not sure what to do

NHS 111 can help if you need urgent medical help or you're not sure what to do.

They will ask questions about your symptoms so you get the help you need.

If you need to go to A&E, NHS 111 will book an arrival time. This might mean you spend less time in A&E. This also helps with social distancing.  

You can get help from NHS 111 online or call 111. It's available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Get help from NHS 111 online

How to find your nearest A&E

Not all hospitals have an A&E department.

Find your nearest A&E

Many hospitals have their own website and may describe the urgent and emergency care services they offer.

What happens at A&E?

A&E departments offer access 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

A&E staff includes emergency medicine doctors, nurses, diagnostic radiographers, reception staff, porters and healthcare assistants. Medical staff are highly trained in all aspects of emergency medicine.

1. Register

If you arrive by ambulance, the ambulance crew will provide the relevant details to reception and hand you over to the clinical staff. If you're seriously ill, the staff may already know because the ambulance crew will usually alert them.

If you're not in a life-threatening or serious condition, you'll be prioritised by the A&E hospital team along with other patients waiting to be seen – arriving by ambulance does not necessarily mean you'll be seen sooner than if you had walked in to A&E.

If you go to A&E by yourself, you'll need to register when you arrive. You'll be asked a few questions such as name and address but also why you're visiting A&E. If you've been to the hospital before, the reception staff will also have access to your health records.

Once you've registered, you'll be asked to wait until you're called for your assessment.

Some hospitals have a separate children's A&E department where medical staff are specially trained to deal with children's health issues. You may be asked to go straight to the children's area where your child can be registered and assessed

If you need special assistance because of a physical or mental disability then you should let staff know right away. The hospital may be able to call a Learning Disabilities Liaison, a member of their liaison psychiatry team, or provide any other assistance you or your carer may need.

2. Assessment – triage

Once you've registered you'll generally be pre-assessed by a nurse or doctor before further actions are taken. This is called triage. The process is carried out on all patients attending A&E. Triage ensures people with the most serious conditions are seen first.

3. Treatment, transfer or discharge

What happens next depends on the results of your assessment. Sometimes further tests need to be arranged before a course of action can be decided.

If the nurse or doctor feels your situation is not a serious accident or emergency, you may be sent to a nearby urgent treatment centre, minor injuries unit or referred to a GP on site.

This will reduce the waiting queue in A&E and allow you to be treated more quickly.

The waiting time target for patients in A&E is currently set to 4 hours from arrival to admission, transfer or discharge. However, not all hospitals have urgent treatment centres associated, which means people with minor injuries may have a longer wait until they're seen.

In some cases you may be sent home and asked to arrange for a GP referral or you may be given a prescription and sent home. Either way, the hospital will inform your GP that you have been to A&E.

If your situation is more complicated, you may be seen by an A&E doctor or referred to a specialist unit. For example, this could happen for eye injuries, strokes or emergency gynaecology.

Page last reviewed: 19 November 2021
Next review due: 19 November 2024