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ER vs Urgent Care: Which One Do You Need?

Knowing the Difference Between Emergency and Urgency

When you’re in pain or sick, waiting for your doctor’s office to open up or squeeze you in for an appointment is just not an option sometimes. But how do you know when should you go to the emergency room and when should you to go the urgent care?

When It's Urgent

Urgent care facilities are equipped to handle more than people assume, and can do so in much less time than an emergency department. These are some common conditions that urgent care facilities can treat:

  1. Mild to moderate sprains due to accidents, falls, etc.
  2. Moderate back or neck problems
  3. Difficulty breathing (mild to moderate asthma, panic attack symptoms)
  4. Significant, but not life-threatening cuts or bleeding
  5. Diagnostic services, such as x-rays and lab work
  6. Minor fractures and broken bones (fingers, toes, etc.)
  7. Skin rashes or infections
  8. Eye infections/irritation
  9. Flu or cold symptoms (fever, vomiting/diarrhea, coughing, etc.)
  10. Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)
  11. Minor to Moderate animal or bug bites
  12. Persistent, but non-debilitating (see below), or long-lasting headaches/migraines

Learn more about CRHS's Urgent Care Facility here

When It's an Emergency

Emergencies are classified as life-threatening. Going to the emergency room should be a last resort when an urgent care facility or your primary care provider are not options. Reserve trips to the ER for life-or-limb situations, such as:

  1. Severe, persistent chest pains or difficulty breathing
  2. Heart attack or stroke symptoms (paralysis, difficulty speaking/understanding speech, radiating pain from chest to jaw or arm, etc.)
  3. Head injuries resulting in serious wounds and/or unconsciousness
  4. Difficulty speaking or understanding speech
  5. Severe internal or abdominal pain
  6. Sudden weakness or paralysis in any part of the body (and especially if on one side of face or body)
  7. Vaginal bleeding during pregnancy
  8. Newborn baby with high fever (babies who are at or less than 3 months old, with a temperature of 100 degrees or higher need to be seen right away)
  9. Sudden testicular pain and swelling
  10. Severe and persistent vomiting, diarrhea and/or dehydration
  11. Serious burns
  12. Severe allergic reactions to food (inability to breathe, swelling of face, hands or neck, etc.)
  13. Severe animal bites, or toxic or infected bug bites
  14. Seizures, without a previous diagnosis of epilepsy
  15. Major broken bones (legs, arms, etc. — toes/fingers can normally be treated at an urgent care)
  16. Any deep wounds or cuts, gunshot wounds, knife wounds, etc.
  17. Loss (or near-loss) of limbs or appendages
  18. Sudden/debilitating migraine (begins within a matter of seconds, causes vision or speech impairment, fever, weakness, exhibits unusual symptoms for you, etc.)
  19. High fevers resulting in or coupled with: weakness, hallucinations, vomiting, dizziness, drooling, trouble breathing, blood in stool/urine/mucus, pain when urinating, leg swelling, red/swollen/hot area of skin, difficulty swallowing, confusion/agitation, etc.
  20. Long-lasting high fevers (103º or higher, lasting more than 7 days)

Learn more about CRHS's Emergency Department here.

When to Call 9-1-1

If you are experiencing severe, life-threatening situations, it might be necessary to call an ambulance. Paramedics can administer life-saving treatment/stabilization upon arrival and during transit. Ambulances can also ensure that you reach a hospital with haste, and without as much jeopardy to your life or the lives of other drivers on the road. Call 911 when experiencing:

  • Heart attack or stroke symptoms
    • Chest pains, pains that radiate from chest to jaw or arm; sudden difficulty speaking, moving or seeing; difficulty understanding speech, etc.
  • Faintness or dizziness/blurred vision, high fever, confusion/agitation, etc. (see 19 - High Fevers, above)
  • Severe wounds or head injuries of any kind, especially when they cause unconsciousness, dizziness, difficulty seeing, or any other troubling symptoms
  • When you cannot safely drive yourself to a hospital or don’t have access to somebody else who can drive you to the hospital
    • Regardless of your ability to drive or be driven by a friend/family member or acquaintance, if you are experiencing any or all of the above symptoms, call 9-1-1 immediately.

Why You Should Know the Difference

You may not think it’s a big deal which one you choose — but it is! Going to the ER when you could go to the urgent care almost always means a hefty medical bill (even with health insurance) and a much longer wait.

Keep in mind, the emergency room is for emergencies — think car crashes, heart attacks, strokes, extremely high and persistent fevers, etc. When you go to the emergency room for a condition that can be handled by an urgent care, you’re going to have to wait until any life-threatening cases are resolved or stabilized first before you’re seen. You would expect the same prioritized treatment if you were facing a life-threatening illness or injury.

Emergency rooms should be reserved for critical conditions or used as a last resort in minor situations if an urgent care isn’t open or located within the area, or you can’t be seen by your primary care physician (it’s the weekend, after-hours, they can’t get you in soon enough, etc.)

What to Do If You Don't Have Insurance

Many adults will opt for the emergency room for a minor condition when they or their children or other family members do not have health insurance and need medical attention because ERs cannot turn you away or refuse treatment, regardless of your ability to pay. We understand this logic completely, but, for those without insurance, we offer this guide to help you navigate your coverage options.

Please take the time to research your coverage options. Having insurance saves you time, money and frustration in the long run, while keeping ERs open and available for those who need it most.

Read Your Guide to Health Coverage: Getting the Care You Need here.

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