When to Use Urgent Care vs. The Emergency Room

Urgent Care vs. Emergency Room


When a sudden illness or injury strikes, it can be scary and overwhelming. Often, it leads to the question: urgent care or the emergency room? Especially if your regular doctor isn’t available, you sometimes need to make a quick choice about where to get the medical care you need. Following is a guide to knowing when to pick the emergency room and when to visit an urgent care center.

Urgent Care

This option is typically best for minor illnesses or injuries when your primary care physician is unavailable or you can’t get into to see them. Urgent care can be a good and cost-effective alternative to the ER, especially for minor health issues or injuries. Most urgent care centers contract with a variety of insurance companies and provide preventive care, routine exams and immunizations, in addition to caring for illnesses and injuries. Here is a list of non life-threatening conditions that are often appropriate for treatment at an urgent care center:

  • Allergies
  • Diarrhea
  • Ear infections
  • Rashes
  • Sprains and strains
  • Vaccinations
  • Minor wounds
  • Sinus infections
  • Back pain
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Minor burns
  • Insect bites and stings
  • Flu
  • Mono
  • Abrasions and contusions

Many urgent care centers offer X-ray and basic lab services as well. Depending on the location, you may be seen by a physician or a licensed nurse practitioner.

Emergency Room

Emergency rooms are comprehensive centers with the equipment, technology and specialists to care for more serious or complicated conditions. Emergency rooms tend to treat the patients with the most serious conditions first, so patients with less urgent needs will often have to wait longer to see a doctor. Here is a list of the conditions that call for emergency room care.

  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Seizures
  • Severe burns
  • Deep cuts or bleeding that won’t stop
  • Sudden blurred vision and/or dizziness
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Breaks with bone showing
  • Overdoses

Any situation that is potentially life-threatening or limb-threatening should be treated at an emergency department. It is best to call 911 in these situations to initiate treatment and stabilization while being transported by EMS personnel to the hospital.

For minor illnesses and injuries that can wait, the best option may be a follow-up with your primary care physician. If you don’t have a primary care physician, you can call toll-free 1-844-SSM-WELL (776-9355) for a referral to an SSM Health physician who meets your needs.

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