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:

Less severe injuries can be treated in urgent care centres or minor injuries units. A&E is not an alternative to a GP appointment.

If your GP is closed you can go to 111.nhs.uk or call 111, which will direct you to the best local service.

Alternatively, you can visit an NHS urgent treatment or walk-in centre, which will also treat minor illnesses without an appointment.

How to find your nearest A&E

Not all hospitals have an A&E department. You can use the find services search on this site to see if there is one near you.

Find your nearest A&E

Alternatively, many hospitals have their own website and generally describe the urgent and emergency care services they offer.

If you dialled 999 for an ambulance and you have to be taken to hospital, then the ambulance team will take you to the most appropriate A&E – this may not be the closest. Find out more about making 999 emergency calls.

What happens at A&E?

A&E departments offer access 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. A&E staff include paramedics, A&E nurses, diagnostic radiographers, A&E reception staff, porters, healthcare assistants and emergency medicine doctors. 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 are seriously ill, the staff will already know because the ambulance crew will have alerted them on the way in.

If you're not in a life-threatening or serious condition, you will be prioritised by the A&E hospital team along with other patients waiting to be seen – arriving by ambulance does not necessarily mean you will 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 first. You'll be asked a few questions such as name and address but also why you are visiting A&E. If you have 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 are 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 have 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 care centre, minor injuries unit or referred to a GP on site. This will reduce the waiting queue in A&E and at the same time allows you (the patient with the lesser injury) to be treated quickly as well.

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 care centres associated, which means people with minor injuries may have a longer wait until they are 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 problems, strokes or emergency gynaecology.

Page last reviewed: 22/08/2018
Next review due: 22/08/2021