A distressed woman dials 999 and asks for an ambulance because she can't sleep. Another says she has a medical emergency - her pet dog is injured.

The Sussex Ambulance operator at the other end of the call deals with their problems sympathetically, perhaps suggesting another course of action, or someone else to call.

But these examples are just two of the 26,000 inappropriate calls ambulance staff deal with each year - 20 per cent of the total number of 130,000 calls.

Now ambulance chiefs are launching a campaign to stop personnel having to waste their time answering such calls.

Sussex Ambulance will warn people's lives are being put at risk because medical staff urgently needed elsewhere are having their time taken up by wasted calls.

On average, crews attend more than 450 incidents a day, rising to more than 500 at peak times.

The Emergency Patient Communication Centre (EPCC) at the service's headquarters in Lewes handles all 999 ambulance calls.

People suffering life-threatening conditions, such as heart attacks, uncontrolled bleeding or unconsciousness, are given advice over the phone until help arrives.

However, staff say they have had a range of inappropriate calls this year, which have led to delays.

These include people who phone for an ambulance because they have a bad cold, or because they are late for a hospital appointment.

By cutting the number of non-urgent calls, the service hopes to boost its response times.

Director of operations Trevor Anderson said: "We put the welfare of our patients at the very heart of everything we do but those members of the public who don't think before phoning for an ambulance are putting an immense strain on our services.

"With this campaign over the summer, traditionally our busiest period, we are asking people to help us to help them.

"We will always respond to emergencies but in many cases there are more appropriate options."

People are being urged to only phone 999 if it is a genuine emergency.

If a person is looking for general medical advice or treatment, they should visit their GP, go to the minor injury unit or speak to their pharmacist.

The 24-hour information helpline NHS Direct is also available on 0845 4647.