Emergency Room or Urgent Care? How to Know Which to Visit

Emergency Room or Urgent Care? How to Know Which to Visit

With the rise of urgent care clinics as an alternative to going to the emergency room, many people are left unsure which to visit when they experience a medical issue. The choice is important, as while urgent care clinics are often much cheaper, they are unequipped to deal with certain emergencies and will refer you to an emergency room anyway. While the line between urgent and emergency medical issues is not always easily apparent, here are some ways you can tell whether you need to go to the emergency room or urgent care.


Pain is a troubling symptom, and either urgent care or the emergency room might be the right answer depending on its severity and location. Some pain, such as ear pain from a suspected ear infection, a sore throat, or other concerning but not alarming pain can be seen by urgent care. Severe pain, however, especially if stemming from the chest or abdominal area, should be looked at in an ER. This type of pain could be indicative of a cardiovascular event, appendicitis, tumor or cyst, or other serious condition. Even severe leg pain could be an emergency, especially if you are unable to easily walk because it could be a sign of deep vein thrombosis (DVT). DVT occurs when a blood clot forms in the deep veins of your body and if not treated promptly could result in required amputation.


In general, injuries that are not life-threatening can be taken to urgent care while anything life-threatening should be seen as an emergency. Simple or suspected broken bones can often be mended at an urgent care clinic, while complex fractures should go to the emergency room. Most animal bites, including insect stings and bites, can be handled by urgent care, although severe, life-threatening bites, such as to the head or neck, should be taken to the ER. For sprains or strains, you should go to urgent care, while anyone who is bleeding severely should be taken straight to an emergency room.


Most illnesses will not require a trip to the emergency room. Fevers, flu symptoms, coughs, vomiting, diarrhea, and most bacterial, viral, and fungal infections can be handled at an urgent care clinic. Even dehydration, which is often brought about by infections, can be treated at urgent care. If you have reason to believe the illness symptoms you, a family member or a friend are experiencing could be fatal, such as being unable to breathe, then an emergency room visit is warranted. If someone falls unconscious, you will also want to take them to the emergency room.

Slurred Speech or Confusion

Anyone who is suddenly experiencing slurred speech, confusion, vision loss, trouble speaking, or understanding others should be taken to an emergency room immediately. These are signs of a stroke, head trauma, or other brain damage that must be addressed immediately in order to have the best chance of restoring normal function. Other signs of a stroke include weakness in one arm or leg, drooping on one side of the face, and trouble walking or staying balanced. Strokes usually only affect one side of the body, with the left side being more common. Head trauma can have other symptoms such as pupil dilation, difficulty sleeping or awakening from sleep, light and sound sensitivity, and more.

Allergic Reactions

A minor allergic reaction can be sent to an urgent care clinic. Minor reactions can include rashes or minor respiratory problems caused by pollen, pet, or other environmental allergens. A major reaction will require a visit to an emergency room and typically involves not being able to breathe or experiencing severe swelling. The difference between the two usually can be discerned based on the severity of the reaction and whether the person has had contact with a known life-threatening allergy. If you are not sure what is causing the allergic reaction, you will likely be referred to an allergist after the reaction is brought under control to determine your health needs moving forward.

Generally speaking, the severity of your symptoms should help you determine whether to go to an urgent care clinic or an emergency room. When searching for a good clinic make sure you are trying to find the one nearest to you. For example, if you live in Illinois you might search for Urgent Care in Oak Brook. If you live in New York City you might search for a local CityMD, or Texans might search for the nearest Texas MedClinic. Certain symptoms or issues, however, are more likely to warrant going to one or the other. When in doubt, you can call your primary provider to see what they suggest.

Urgent Care Clinics: Bringing Nursing to the Community

Urgent Care Clinics: Bringing Nursing to the Community

Urgent Care Fills a Niche or Two

Of the many options for primary health care, urgent care fills a niche for both patient convenience and the rerouting of care needs. Between the packed appointment schedules of primary care physicians and the long waits at the emergency department, urgent care has recently emerged as one of the fastest growing segments in health care. This has created more options for nurses seeking alternatives to traditional clinical roles.

What to Expect from Urgent Care

Urgent care clinics offer walk-in care for a wide variety of non-life-threatening but urgent needs. These clinicians see a little of everything; therefore, nurses working there must have strong assessment skills, IV start and phlebotomy skills, excellent problem-solving skills, and adaptability. A comfort level with patients of all ages is critical, as urgent care centers treat illnesses along the entire lifespan.

Who Works in Urgent Care?

Nurses typically work directly under a physician assistant or nurse practitioner in urgent care because medical doctors will focus on the most complex cases. There are similarities to working in a hospital but without the interruptions from the ancillary services that may appear on a given unit.

Many centers have an in-house lab, and the nurse may be responsible for obtaining and preparing specimen samples for testing. There is often a radiology suite on-site as well for ordered diagnostic films. Cases that are more complex are referred either to the ED or, if not as urgent, to specialists for further follow up.

Where Can Urgent Care be Found?

Urgent care centers can be freestanding or attached to an affiliated hospital. One of the most appealing factors about working in these centers is that the hours are often more predictable and the likelihood of burnout is lower than on busy patient floors or in emergency departments.