do i need a medic alert bracelet?
October 26, 2009 4:26 PM   Subscribe

When is a medic alert bracelet necessary? how useful are they actually?

i'm a 28 year old female that's allergic to penicillin, erythromycin, and i'm asthmatic. it seems like all three of those could come up in a situation where i wasn't able to speak for myself. lower on the list of "things that are wrong with me" - i have a severe allergy to poison ivy that doesn't look like poison ivy, but could potentially kill me (my eyes, lips, and most alarmingly-throat swells up. the only medication that works is a steroid shot). i only say lower on the list because it takes 24 hours or so before i'm in such bad shape that i have to be in the hospital and i've always made it before my throat as actually swelled to the point of not breathing (but the doctors are all agreed that 12 hours or so more and that's exactly where i would be), so it doesn't seem like an emergency responder sort of situation.

so! do you have a bracelet? what has you wearing one? are you in the medical profession, and if so, do you take notice of them? would you take notice if someone had the symbol tattooed on the top of their wrist, with the allergies/conditions tattooed under the wrist? am i foolish to not wear one?
posted by nadawi to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
My 69 year old mother wears a medicalert bracelet reading "No CPR 10 mins". As a former nurse, she has strong feelings on her end-of-life care, which amount to wacking her head off with a shovel if I catch her moving at less than a brisk walk. If she has a heart attack, she wants to die then and there. She's very vocal about the fact that she doesn't want to live in anything less than a fully able condition.

She seems to feel that any medical professional here in Canada will immediately respect her bracelet, even with such ghoulish instructions. I think that those bracelets are generally respected.
posted by fatbird at 4:31 PM on October 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

If I had a life-threatening allergy, I'd wear a bracelet.

I think that the more labeling you (or your doctor) do before anything's done, the better. See this NY Times article about surgeons cutting into "the wrong side" of patients. Part of the solution? Sharpies!
posted by zippy at 4:43 PM on October 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

My husband, who is a paramedic and EMS instructor, says he would worry about a tattoo being missed if they check the other wrist for a pulse or just glance for a bracelet. He also says you should absolutely be wearing a bracelet, FWIW.
posted by MaritaCov at 4:43 PM on October 26, 2009

I'm a medical student, early on in my studies and we've already been told about them.

We also use a similar system in hospitals - even if you don't have a medical alert bracelet when you come in, if you have significant allergies you'll be made to wear a bright red plastic bracelet to alert everyone to the allergy.

My father is also a doctor and always wears his MedicAlert bracelet.

So, yes, my verdict would be that they are useful and attention is paid to them.
posted by Coobeastie at 4:44 PM on October 26, 2009

I have a friend who has pretty a serious neurological condition that causes her to seizure and such. There are certain medicines/emergency care procedures (like defib) that could cause her much more harm than good, so she wears a bracelet. She's paranoid, however, that first responders won't see the bracelet, so she had a hug arrow tattooed on her arm pointing to it.

So yeah, err on the side of over cautious, and think about a giant arrow tattoo.

I love pragmatic tattoos.
posted by Lutoslawski at 4:58 PM on October 26, 2009 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: since it seems pretty unanimous that i should be wearing an alert of some sort - for follow up -

will a necklace be noticed or are they primarily looking at wrists?

and of the things i listed, what should be included? if the poison ivy thing is one of the things that should be included, how the heck would i word that in a "fits on a bracelet/dog tag" sort of way"?
posted by nadawi at 5:10 PM on October 26, 2009

i've seen medic-alert tattoos, as well. the symbol, the relevant text that would be on the bracelet, etc.

i don't know if medical staff looks at or for them, though. any EMTs care to chime in on that?
posted by radiosilents at 5:13 PM on October 26, 2009

EMT here. Yes to the bracelet. Less likely to notice a necklace.

It should say something like:




That ought to fit on a bracelet, and will get the point across if you're not conscious. Most important is the allergy information, first responders will know what to do if you're having an asthma attack or are in anaphylactic shock.

posted by charmcityblues at 5:16 PM on October 26, 2009 [4 favorites]

My husband had to get one when he went on blood thinners (after a stroke) and all of his doctors (there are several) confirmed what charmcityblues said. First responders are trained to look at wrists and may not notice a necklace. We were also advised against getting one that looked too much like jewelry. There are several companies that make fancy ones that aren't so obviously a medic alert. We ended up with a plain, stainless steel that has his name and the red symbol on the top and all his medical info on the inside. HTH
posted by pearlybob at 5:44 PM on October 26, 2009

EMT here. We are instructed to check for medic alerts on all unconscious patients. I'd say a bracelet is preferable to a tattoo or necklace, but a necklace shouldn't be missed. A tattoo might be.

A agree with charmcityblues as far as content.
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 5:56 PM on October 26, 2009

An unqualified voice in the crowd:

The ubiquity of the Medic Alert bracelets has ensured it is an almost guaranteed way to communicate with your first responders. They're not going to spend much time searching for other things that might sorta be useful. And if your situation changes, you can't easily update a tattoo.

I personally do not wear one, but definitely should, and intend to get one shortly (as soon as I get a stable diagnosis and treatment plan arranged, basically). I currently keep a card in my wallet, in the photo section, with a caduceus visible even before you get to my ID, and details of my conditions and concerns printed on the opposite side. This would probably be noticed relatively early on during any medical event I experience, but definitely not as quickly as a bracelet, and probably not as fast as a necklace either. It looks like they sell shoe tags as well, which I wouldn't even consider given how hard they'd be to notice.

One important thing to keep in mind is that the Medic Alert product is actually a $27/year service - An ID is printed on the tag, and with this ID, your information can be accessed by telephone or fax. You can have just the bracelet, but the service itself is pretty good to have, too, as you can put a message stating you have a condition, and the paramedics can call to get a full explanation if necessary.

If you're looking at their website, the site at is /much/ more userfriendly. I'm not sure it's actually live and operational, but it came up poking around in Google.
posted by Rendus at 6:33 PM on October 26, 2009

EMT here too. Go with the bracelet. Necklace maybe. I would not look for or be likely to even notice a tattoo.
posted by blaneyphoto at 6:36 PM on October 26, 2009

nadawi, your question reminded me of this comment from scrump in a MetaTalk thread. He's also an EMT and gave a brief list of good suggestions re: what to include on a bracelet, and also named an alternative to MedicAlert (RoadID).

In that same thread, desjardins also had some related tips about carrying emergency contact info.

(IANAEMT nor do I have personal experience with the bracelets -- I've just spent a little time looking into them)
posted by macguffin at 6:47 PM on October 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Anecdotal, but there's a story on Modblog of someone who got a medic alert tattoo, and it was used for its intended purpose shortly thereafter. Some photos and stories here (NSFW, topless woman) if you're interested.

I think you should go with the bracelet.
posted by bedhead at 7:00 PM on October 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

I recently looked into these for my brother. In addition to printing your allergies or medical problems on the bracelet, there are also services you can subscribe to where they include a phone number and ID number on your bracelet. The hospital can call and get more complete medical records, and that call activates a call to your family members to let them know that you're in the hospital.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:09 PM on October 26, 2009

EMT here. Yes to medic bracelet. The poison ivy anaphylaxis and asthma are the big issues. You may have had a 24 hr window with your last exposure to poison ivy, but allergies often get worse with subsequent exposures. Of course that means you should also list your other known drug allergies. Other potentially useful info- Medications you take, history of status asthmaticus? History of intubation? Doctor's name and number. Family contact.
posted by brevator at 7:26 PM on October 26, 2009

In a long thread on concerning medic bracelets and ID tags many paramedics weighed in and said "yes" they do look for them, and that they are helpful.

To enlarge the answer with more general info, they said bracelet and tags are more effective than fancy electronic gizmos that let medics get detailed records on the web.
posted by cccorlew at 8:09 PM on October 26, 2009

I have a life-threatening allergy to a surgical anesthetic, as well as several other less threatening issues. The primary reason I wear it is so that the right people would be contacted in an emergency. As far as do people see it, I have my doubts. We had first aid training at work, and in three instances, I was designated as the 'victim' for people to practice on, and the first time, they didn't check for the bracelet so I pointed it out. On the two subsequent times, they STILL didn't check for it, even after it was pointed out, and one of those times, the 'rescuer' was the leader of the seminar.
posted by JoannaC at 8:19 PM on October 26, 2009

I just wanted to emphasise what brevator said. From what I recall of my first aid training, you don't tend to have sudden anaphylaxis wihout having prior, less severe reactions, so please don't underestimate the potential for further reactions to be MUCH worse.
posted by goshling at 8:49 PM on October 26, 2009

My dad wears a necklace but wears it underneath his clothing. When he has had it outside his clothes at a doctor's office, even in a non-emergency situation I have seen doctors reach out, flip it over, and read it.
posted by IndigoRain at 11:35 PM on October 26, 2009

Firefighter/EMT here.

Bracelets: Good idea. We check for them on unconscious/unresponsive patients.
Tattoos: Completely useless idea.

We don't carry PCN on ambulances, and the erythro would be in a triple antibiotic, which wouldn't be used on a non-verbal patient anyway. The stuff that we do carry is stuff that generally wouldn't be used on an unconscious non-verbal patient.

A medic alert bracelet isn't a bad idea at all. Another good idea is to simply let your friends & family know so if you're ever in an emergency situation, they can let the first responders know.

ICE in cell phones? Good idea, in theory. Useless when you encounter a passcode on the phone and can't get into it, though. Having "Mom" in there is a good idea too.
Cards in purses/wallets? If it's not right behind the driver's license, it's probably going to be hard to find and we might not know if it's even relevant or not.

It's difficult to plan for every situation. Let's say that you're out driving and you get in a solo wreck and are rendered unconscious. We'll look for the bracelet, but what if your cell phone was lost in the crash? Or your purse with your carefully detailed medical history was thrown from the wreckage? Until the police department (who would show up on such an incident) runs your plates or locates the cell or purse, you're a John/Jane Doe. We won't know what you are and aren't allergic to, but still have to do what's necessary to keep you alive until we reach the emergency room. All we'll be able to tell the receiving facility is "We're en-route to your facility code 3 with a female, approx 28 years of age, involved in a single vehicle accident with major vehicle damage. Vital signs are as follows, and we have performed the following (c-spine, airway adjuncts, splinting, etc) " followed by any other pertinent medical information.
posted by drstein at 2:09 PM on October 28, 2009

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