3 Common Conditions that Send People with Intellectual Disabilities to the ER (and How to Prevent Them)

Kenneth Knowles, MD
Medically reviewed by Kenneth Knowles, MDSeptember 29th, 2020
PCP and Patient

Are you taking care of someone with an intellectual disability? If so, you might have run into this complicated issue: managing a health condition in your loved one while seeking emergency or urgent medical care. It’s not always an easy task to jump in the car and head to the emergency room or urgent care center with someone with an intellectual disability who might have trouble understanding exactly what’s going on around them. That’s why it’s best to avoid common, non-life-threatening conditions that send people with intellectual disabilities to the ER entirely (and seek in-home treatment from an urgent care provider when that’s not possible). Read on to learn more about what you can do to avoid these conditions, and what steps to take next if your loved one has already contracted one.


People with intellectual disabilities often have difficulty communicating what they need to their caretakers. Some people even have trouble understanding their discomforts and concerns in the first place in order to communicate their needs at all. This is especially true when it comes to dehydration.

People without intellectual disabilities typically have no issue understanding the sensation of thirst, but this isn’t always the case for people with intellectual disabilities. Often, they have trouble understanding that thirst is a sign that their body is bordering on dehydration, and that it’s time to drink water. Since people with intellectual disabilities might not be as attuned to their body’s hydration levels as someone without an intellectual disability, it’s important for caretakers to stay vigilant to make sure their loved one with an intellectual disability doesn’t become dehydrated.

Often, dehydration can lead to a trip to the emergency room (or a well-placed care request to an in-home medical treatment provider, like DispatchHealth), which is difficult to pull off as a caretaker of someone with an intellectual disability. The reality, though, is that almost half of all emergency room visits due to dehydration may be preventable through a few simple tips and tricks.

Make sure to keep water handy at all times and encourage your loved one to take small sips throughout the day. Reinforce this good habit however you can to teach your loved one that it’s good to drink water regularly. If they don’t like the taste of water, replace it with something more flavorful, such as coconut water, fruit juice, or Gatorade. Finally, don’t forget to stock the fridge with H2O-rich foods like fruit, yogurt, salad ingredients, and broth-based soups.

Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)

Did you know that adults with intellectual disabilities are five times more likely to be hospitalized for a UTI than adults without an intellectual disability? This largely has to do with detection methods, since people with intellectual disabilities aren’t always able to notice the signs and symptoms of a

UTI and communicate them effectively to their caretakers. UTIs are painful enough when you have a firm mental grasp on what’s happening down there. For those with intellectual disabilities, they’re even worse.

Caretakers, here are some signs and symptoms of a UTI in your loved one that you can easily watch out for:

  • Your loved one goes to the restroom frequently, but doesn’t seem to urinate very much
  • The urine appears cloudy, red, pink, or brown
  • The urine smells strong or foul
  • Your loved one complains about pelvic pain or pressure in the abdomen or lower back
  • Your loved one is fatigued or shaky
  • Your loved one has a fever or chills

When it comes to symptoms like pain while urinating and a persistent urge to urinate, try to ask pointed questions to determine whether or not your loved one with an intellectual disability is experiencing them.

To help prevent your loved one from contracting a UTI, encourage them to use the restroom frequently, since stored urine in the bladder can encourage the growth of bacteria. Instruct them to wipe from front to back to prevent the spread of bacteria, and drink plenty of water and other non-diuretic beverages. You should also teach them to avoid scented, chemical-laden bath products, which can worsen irritation, and to wear cotton underwear and loose-fitting clothes to discourage moisture accumulation.

You can also prevent your loved one from being hospitalized with in-home treatment for UTIs. Many urgent care providers, like the qualified medical professionals at DispatchHealth, have the sensitivity necessary to treat patients with intellectual disabilities.

Skin Problems

Research has shown that the rate of intellectual disability is almost tripled among kids with food allergies. And since food allergies can lead to skin conditions like rashes and hives, it’s safe to say that people with intellectual disabilities are at higher risk of contracting food-related skin problems. They’re also at risk of contracting other dermatologic symptoms due to potential hormonal problems, among other things.

Skin infections can be a nuisance, causing most people to pick at their skin until they remember that it’s best to leave it alone. People with intellectual disabilities sometimes have trouble remembering this, causing them to irritate their skin issues further, preventing healing and encouraging bacterial growth.

What can you do as a caretaker to limit the risk of skin issues in your loved one with an intellectual disability? First, you can stay vigilant when it comes to their food allergies. Many processed foods today have sneaky ingredients like corn, sugar, and wheat that you may not have suspected. These common allergens can lead to rash or hives breakouts, potentially necessitating an emergency room visit (or a visit to your home from a qualified urgent care provider, like DispatchHealth). Second, do everything you can to prevent your loved one with an intellectual disability from picking at their skin. This can exacerbate the problem and potentially lead to infection, which could also require urgent medical care.

Skip the ER and Call DispatchHealth

Taking your loved one with an intellectual disability to the emergency room or an urgent care clinic for a non-life-threatening condition can be difficult, especially if they’re struggling with a painful or uncomfortable condition. If your loved one is dealing with any of the above conditions, contact DispatchHealth today to seek in-home medical treatment. We’ll come to your residence to provide top-notch care at a fraction of the cost of an emergency room visit. We accept most major health insurance providers, including Medicare and Medicaid, and offer an affordable flat rate for uninsured patients. Request care via phone, online, or our app today to receive care in your own home within a couple of hours.


DispatchHealth relies only on authoritative sources, including medical associations, research institutions, and peer-reviewed medical studies.

Sources referenced in this article:

  1. https://hosppeds.aappublications.org/content/3/3/204
  2. http://www.annfammed.org/content/15/5/462.full
  3. https://www.mdmag.com/medical-news/autism-rates-nearly-tripled-in-children-with-food-allergies
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25824343
  5. https://www.clinicaladvisor.com/home/cme-ce-features/intellectual-and-%E2%80%A8developmental-disabilities/6/
  6. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9135-urinary-tract-infections/prevention

If this is an emergency, please call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department.

The DispatchHealth blog provides tips, tricks and advice for improving lives through convenient, comfortable healthcare.

Related Content

DispatchHealth’s APP Fellowship Program Receives Accreditation

DispatchHealth Earns Accreditation with Distinction for Advanced Practice Provider Transition to Practice Fellowship

In sickness & in health

Couple’s Embrace of Home-Centered Healing