Urgent Care or Emergency Room: How to Know When and Where to Go


If you fall and suspect a broken bone, sprain, or need stitches, should you go to an urgent care clinic or emergency room? What about when you are feeling ill? Unfortunately, the answer is not simple. To begin, few people know the difference between an urgent care and the emergency room, which makes it even more difficult for people to know where to go to address an urgent medical need. When an injury or illness is cause for concern, it is important to seek out medical attention. The question is how to know where to go? To clear up the confusion, we have put together some helpful information:


Urgent care clinics

Urgent care and express clinics are considered the middle ground between a primary care provider and a hospital emergency room. If you are feeling ill, running a high fever, or suffering from other severe symptoms and you can’t reach your primary care physician, urgent care is often the best option.


Reasons to visit urgent care

Urgent care clinics offer multiple benefits. They are often open evenings and weekends, allow walk-ins and in some cases, they will take appointments. Unlike the emergency room, urgent care clinics tend to have minimal wait times and get patients in and out within a shorter time frame. However, if you need immediate medical attention and can’t find an urgent care nearby that is open, an emergency room might be the best option.


Urgent care clinics are staffed with physician assistants, nurse practitioners, nurses, and occasionally physicians. Providers can order basic labs and imaging tests, such as X-rays, to diagnose an issue and develop a treatment plan, yet without access to all hospital personnel and equipment, there is a limit to the types of tests they can run. Here is a list of symptoms that can typically be addressed by an urgent care clinic:


  • Back or muscle pain
  • Bronchitis
  • Cuts and minor burns
  • Diarrhea
  • Earache, Ear infections, and ear wax removal
  • Skin conditions including cold and canker sores, eczema, hives, impetigo, shingles, warts, and skin infections
  • Sprains or joint pain
  • Upper respiratory infection (colds, flu)
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Vomiting
  • Pink eye and styes
  • Seasonal allergies


When to go to the emergency room

The ER is best used for more serious, life or limb-threatening emergencies. It’s not a place for minor health complications. If you’re unsure whether you need to go to the emergency room, chances are you aren’t ill enough to be in dire need of a visit to the hospital, but it is probably a good idea to seek medical attention. However, one thing to note is that if you are experiencing an illness or injury that is accompanied by serious symptoms such as shortness of breath or an underlying health condition that could amplify a reaction to medication it is best to go to an emergency room and be examined by a doctor to determine the cause and treatment.


The emergency room is staffed 24 hours a day with physicians, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, and nurses that have training and experience in serious health situations, as well as access to an array of equipment and specialty care for a wide variety of conditions. They also have an abundance of technological resources, such as imaging and labs, that urgent care clinics may not provide.


If you experience any of the following health complications, you may need to visit the ER:

  • Severe or unexplained chest pain or pressure
  • Compound fracture (bone that protrudes through the skin)
  • Head, neck, or spine injuries
  • Pneumonia
  • Seizures
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sudden, severe headache, or paralysis or weakness
  • Uncontrolled bleeding
  • Ingestion of a poisonous substance
  • Serious wounds or burns
  • Anaphylaxis: Severe allergic reactions (including hives, swelling, and trouble breathing)


Other options to consider

Urgent care clinics and emergency rooms are both good options when it is important to see a healthcare professional as soon as possible. If the situation does not appear urgent, it is always best to contact your primary care physician (PCP) first. They have immediate access to a patient’s medical history and can administer tests or refer you to a specialist, if needed. Additionally, many medical practices and insurance carriers are now offering virtual care and telehealth options can be just as effective in diagnosing and developing an ongoing treatment plan and in some instances, it can be the quickest way to be seen by a medical professional.

The bottom line is determining where to go largely depends on the symptoms and the situation. The good news is there are a variety of options available.

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