Your Guide To Deciding Between Going To The Emergency Room Or To Urgent Care

You have to make many decisions throughout the day for yourself and your family. From choosing what to make for dinner to picking where to shop for clothes and wear on any given day. You’re faced with more decisions than you can keep track of. One of the most intimidating decisions you will have to make at different times throughout your life is whether you should go to the emergency room or urgent care when someone in your family is ill or injured.

The urgency of needing to make this choice can easily cloud your thinking. This can then lead you to an option that doesn’t provide enough care. This option may even cause you to wait longer than necessary for the relatively minimal treatment you need.

By knowing beforehand which option is right for different medical conditions, you can spend less time trying to make a decision and more time getting the right treatment.

Urgent Care: Everything You Need To Know

A good rule of thumb is to go to urgent care for minor medical issues. According to an assistant professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Timothy Tan, M.D., M.P.H., urgent care is appropriate medical care for any conditions that do not pose potential threats to your life. Dr. Tan advises that urgent care is for many of the same medical issues you may see your doctor for. However, the issue now calls for prompt medical attention within 24 hours or less.

assisted suicide

The average urgent care center will be staffed with doctors and physician assistants who have training in family medicine and in emergency treatment. This duality in knowledge allows urgent care centers to handle a wide variety of illnesses and injuries in patients of any age. The types of conditions urgent care centers treat are practically endless, but these are some of the most common:

  • Sprains and strains
  • Moderate flu-like symptoms
  • Seasonal allergies or eye irritation
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Minor cuts that might require stitches
  • Minor rashes, scrapes, and burns
  • Dehydration
  • Fevers without a rash
  • Ear or sinus pain, cough, or sore throat

An urgent care’s ability to treat a given condition typically comes down to the equipment and resources they have. According to Dr. Tan, urgent care centers are usually equipped with basic lab testing materials. They are used for conditions like the flu, strep throat and X-ray machines. The centers also hold tools for minor procedures such as stitching a wound, draining an abscess, or splinting a broken bone.

If staff at your local urgent care are unable to provide you with the treatment you need, they will be able to refer you to an appropriate specialist or a nearby emergency room. If you know what resources your urgent care has, you’ll be able to go directly to the right medical professional.

The amount of time you spend in the waiting room is another major difference between urgent care centers and emergency rooms. You will usually see a doctor quicker when you go to urgent care. Emergency rooms will prioritize life-threatening health issues. Thus, anyone with a more minor concern will spend longer waiting for an available doctor. Your local urgent care shouldn’t be handling life-threatening conditions. Therefore, they will be able to get you in and out faster when you have a minor issue.

Keep in mind that the most urgent care centers will not be open until 24/7.  Instead, they adhere to more standard business hours as they focus on non-life threatening symptoms. Thus, many urgent care clinics will open early in the morning and close in the late evening. Be sure to check the operating hours of your local urgent care. Also, if you or a loved one become ill overnight, carefully consider whether you can wait until morning to seek treatment.

Emergency Rooms: Everything You Need To Know

Unlike urgent care clinics, the emergency room (ER) is designed to treat life-threatening medical issues and serious injuries. A typical ER will have state-of-the-art trauma rooms and highly-skilled nurses. It will also have board-certified ER physicians, as well as modern labs and imaging equipment. All of these tools will be used to treat the most complications of medical emergencies.

With all of these features at their fingertips, Americans are accustomed to utilizing emergency rooms. They might even be slightly too comfortable doing so. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found in the most recent version of the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey that 136.9 million people visited emergency departments in the United States last year. However, just 9% of those visitors were admitted to the hospital.

While the majority of patients who go to the ER can receive the appropriate treatment elsewhere, there are certainly many instances that  necessitate a visit to the emergency room. These are some of the most common serious and life-threatening conditions that emergency departments treat:

  • Severe injuries from auto accidentsbone fracture | Longevity LIVE
  • Multiple injuries resulting from a fall
  • Head injuries
  • Severe or uncontrollable bleeding
  • Loss of consciousness or vision
  • Symptoms of stroke (sudden paralysis, trouble speaking, confusion)
  • Severe allergic reactions
  • Serious burns
  • Fever with a rash
  • Broken bones and dislocated joints
  • Concussion or mental confusion
  • Seizures
  • Chest pain or difficulty breathing

In general, any condition that you believe will require in-depth diagnostic testing, medications, or access to specialists and high-tech equipment that are available in emergency rooms calls for a visit there. Emergency rooms are open around the clock. Therefore, it is recommended that you or a loved one go there if you develop and get injured or ill overnight that can’t wait until the morning when urgent care is open.

An important factor to remember is the cost difference between the emergency room and an urgent care clinic. The most urgent care centers won’t have medical specialists on-hand or as much equipment in their facility. As a result, the cost of providing care is less. Depending on your insurance, most companies will require a lower copayment for evaluation at an urgent care center. A visit to the emergency room will often come with a pricey bill for the advanced services they provide.

Where Do You Go For More Ambiguous Conditions?

One may decide to go to urgent care for a minor ankle sprain that happened while hiking. Another might even visit the emergency room for a serious gash you get in your hand while chopping up vegetables. However, there are some conditions that are a little trickier to parse out. For instance, chest pains are often enough reason to visit either the ER or an urgent care center. The inclusion of chest pain on both lists isn’t technically wrong, but certain types of pain and various factors can help indicate where you should go.

Let’s take a look at some of the more ambiguous symptoms that could send you to the ER or urgent care. In doing so, we intend to find out how to determine which is right for you.

  1. Sudden Chest Pain

    When you have chest pain it can be rather difficult to determine where you should go for medical treatment. The pain could be an indication of a serious condition such as a heart attack. However, it could also simply be uncomfortable heartburn. If you’re under 55, have no history of heart disease, and can pinpoint a possible cause for pain, you may want to choose urgent care over the emergency room. Typical causes of non-life threatening chest pain include a strenuous workout that pulled a muscle or spicy food that led to heartburn.

    patient | Longevity LIVE

    If you feel chest pain on the left side of your body, are over 55, and know that you are at an increased risk for heart conditions, you may want to choose the emergency room over urgent care. The pain associated with heart attacks typically presents on the left side as a straightforward pain or as a feeling of pressure, squeezing, or strange fullness in the area. Women are more likely to experience heart attack symptoms that are lesser known, including nausea, shortness of breath, and radiating pain in the back, shoulders, and jaw.

  2. Broken or Fractured Bones

    No matter the actual severity of the injury, you’re going to feel a lot of pain when you injure a bone in your body. At the moment, any type of bone fracture feels like it needs the most intense medical attention possible.

    However, the most urgent care clinics are well-equipped to diagnose and splint smaller fractures. If you fracture your hand, finger, elbow, wrist, ankle, foot, toe, or ribs, you can probably go to urgent care and revel in the shorter wait time and lower expenses. For more serious or complex breaks in the arm, leg, hip, or back, you may want to head to the emergency room for more in-depth treatment.

  3. Fever, Abdominal Pain, and Nausea

    There are plenty of symptoms that can indicate any number of medical conditions. A fever is the body’s way of telling you that something is off. If it is accompanied by muscle aches, chills, fatigue, sweating, and a dry cough, you may have the flu. If these symptoms persist without change for two or more days and don’t respond to at-home treatment, you may want to consider seeking medical assistance at urgent care near you. They’ll be able to prescribe you the right medications and treatment to kick your symptoms to the curb.

While these are good guidelines to follow, you should always listen to your own instincts when it comes to your health. If something feels off and you are considering seeking treatment in the emergency room, you don’t have to let the recommendations on this list stop you. Even if your condition could have been treated at an urgent care clinic, you’ll have the peace of mind knowing that you pursued the best care possible for your health.

What should you do for children who need care?

Making medical decisions for yourself becomes relatively easy when you think about making those same decisions for your children. As a parent, you want to give them the best care possible. When every medical issue seems serious, it can be hard to tell what the best care is.

In general for little ones, it is best to take them to their pediatrician whenever possible. As their primary care doctor, a pediatrician will know your child’s medical history and how best to treat them for illnesses. You can bring them to their pediatrician’s office when they’re experiencing cold-like symptoms. Symptoms include a runny nose, ear pain, cough, fever, sore throat, or rash. If your child is experiencing chronic issues such as headaches or abdominal pain, going to the pediatrician is still recommended. In fact, they can better find a pattern in their symptoms and provide ongoing care.

infant care | Longevity LIVE

Urgent care is the appropriate place to seek treatment for your child when they need medical attention and your doctor’s office is closed or you can’t get an appointment soon enough. Typically, situations that call for more immediate medical attention from urgent care include minor falls and stitches. Other situations also include vomiting, diarrhea and ear pain. Furthermore, seek treatment if any of the above cold symptoms persist for two or more days.

If your pediatrician or the provider in urgent care thinks that your child needs further testing or is too ill to go home, they will recommend that you go to the emergency room. It’s best to go straight to the emergency room for any situation that seems life-threatening. This includes head trauma, fast breathing or severe abdominal pain. However,  dehydration, motor vehicle accidents, and trauma with loss of consciousness or vomiting can also be life-threatening. If you have an infant under 28 days old and they develop a fever of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, you should bring them to the ER right away.

Knowing when to go to the emergency room or urgent care is as important to your health. As is making regular appointments with your doctor, eating a healthy diet, and exercising regularly. It’s the only way you will be able to stay healthy in the face of sudden and serious illnesses and injuries. Keep these guidelines in mind and you will be keeping yourself and your family safe.


Read about these 5 Common Myths Busted By Physicians