When it comes to a sudden illness or injury, the average person might not be entirely sure whether to visit their local urgent care or take a trip to the emergency room. If you have ever wondered this yourself, you’re not alone. There are some general guidelines you can follow when it comes to deciding whether to visit an urgent care or go to the emergency room. We’ll identify what symptoms or situations to consider in each case.
What is the Difference Between an Urgent Care and the Emergency Room?
One of the reasons that people have trouble deciding between urgent care and the emergency room is because ‘urgent’ and ‘emergency’ both imply there is a medical problem that needs to be addressed right away. However, the level of care provided at an urgent care and an emergency room are much different and it’s important to know the difference.
- Urgent cares or walk-in clinics provide a necessary service for when you become sick or injured, but your primary physician is not available and you cannot wait for an appointment. The medical issues that are treated at urgent care are usually not life threatening.
- A hospital emergency room is able to provide medical care at any time, night or day and is equipped with staff that can treat patients with critical illness or injury. Things like stroke, heart attack or traumatic injuries from a car accident would be reasons to visit the emergency room right away.
When to go to the Emergency Room
The emergency room is where you should go for medical emergencies that require rapid intervention or advanced treatment that can only be done in a hospital setting (such as surgery). Some of the symptoms that would be dealt with best in the emergency room include:
- Chest pain or difficulty breathing
- Weakness/numbness on one side
- Slurred speech
- Fainting/change in mental state
- Serious burns
- Head or eye injury
- Broken bones and dislocated joints
- Fever with a rash
- Severe cuts that may require stitches
- Facial lacerations
- Severe cold or flu symptoms
- Vaginal bleeding with pregnancy
Don’t go to either an urgent care center or a clinic for these conditions. They will send you to the ER or call 911 for you. If you are in doubt, err on the safe side and head to the nearest hospital.
When to go to Urgent Care
Urgent care centers are same-day clinics that can handle a variety of medical problems that need to be treated right away, but are not considered true emergencies. Symptoms that can be evaluated and treated at an urgent care clinic include:
- Fever without a rash
- Vomiting or persistent diarrhea
- Abdominal pain
- Wheezing or shortness of breath
- Moderate flu-like symptoms
- Sprains and strains
- Small cuts that may require stitches
- Pediatric urgent care
When to go to a Walk-in Clinic
Walk-in clinics offer fast, convenient access to medical care, and many walk-in clinics are also urgent care centers. There is a lot of overlap between what ailments can be treated at a walk-in clinic and urgent care center. Walk-in clinics typically address minor conditions such as:
- Painful urination
- Rashes without fever
- Mild flu-like symptoms
- Cough and congestion symptoms
- Sore throat
- Ear pain
- Eye redness, discharge or itchiness
They also provide some other beneficial services, such as sports physical and vaccines. They are a good option for when you are not feeling well, but it’s not serious enough for the emergency room or urgent care.
Urgent Care and Walk-in Clinics are Faster and Cheaper Than the Emergency Room
While the ER can handle just about anything that an urgent care or walk-in clinic can, you will typically spend more time waiting and end up spending way more money. Most urgent cares can have patients out the door within an hour, whereas an emergency room can have you waiting for over an hour or more depending on how serious your condition is. Emergency room visits can also cost over a thousand dollars whereas an urgent care visit will cost only a fraction of that. For these reasons it is important to know which location is best equipped to deal with the specific issue you are facing. Obviously if you are having a true emergency, go to the emergency room right away, but otherwise consider going to the urgent care first. If the urgent care provider thinks you need a higher level of care, they will get you to the ER.