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Should you use urgent care or the ER?

A little boy sitting on a hospital bed holds a cold compress up to his head.

Aug. 24, 2019—It makes sense to visit an urgent care center when you have a minor illness or injury and you can't get in to see your regular doctor right away. You can walk right in without an appointment and get the treatment you need. And it may save you money compared to a trip to the emergency room (ER).

But if your medical needs turn out to be something more serious, an urgent care center could be the wrong choice, experts caution.

Why it matters

Urgent care centers can treat many of the same things you'd normally go to your doctor's office for—such as sore throats, colds, earaches, sprains and minor cuts. But they aren't equipped to handle real emergencies. Only the ER is prepared for those.

When people show up in urgent care centers with medical conditions that are more serious than an urgent care center can handle, the staff may need to send those patients to an ER for additional medical care. In some cases—like a heart attack or a stroke—this could result in a critical delay in their care.

In a poll, nearly 3 out of 4 ER doctors said they see patients daily who first went to an urgent care center, the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) reports.

Is it more like an emergency?

If you have a common medical problem and your doctor is booked or it's after hours, that's when you go to urgent care. But if you think you're having an emergency—even if you're not sure, actually—it's better to go to the nearest ER.

Here are some common reasons to go to the nearest ER right away (or even call 911):

  • Trouble breathing, including shortness of breath.
  • Any sudden, severe pain.
  • Chest pain or pressure that lasts for two minutes or more.
  • Fainting, sudden dizziness or weakness.
  • Sudden vision changes.
  • Difficulty speaking or walking.
  • Confusion or other odd behaviors.
  • Severe or persistent vomiting or diarrhea.
  • Coughing or vomiting up blood.
  • Thoughts of suicide or of hurting someone else.
  • Unexplained abdominal pain.
  • A bad headache or vomiting after a head injury (call 911).
  • Loss of consciousness (call 911).
  • Bleeding that won't stop (call 911).
  • A rash that covers the whole body with red or purple spots, especially if a fever is also present.
  • A severe allergic reaction with swelling and breathing trouble.
  • A headache with a stiff neck, fever, vomiting or a rash.

Put your knowledge to the test

Want to learn more about the differences between urgent care and the ER? Take this quiz to see how much you know.

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