When to Choose the Urgent Care vs. Emergency Department

Let’s play a game! I want you to pick urgent care or emergency department (ED) for each of the following scenarios. 

Sally has just fallen off the monkey bars at school and hurt her wrist. There isn’t any blood; her wrist just hurts. Urgent care or emergency department?

Bobby was playing in the living room and fell and hit his head on the corner of the coffee table. He didn’t pass out but has a cut on his forehead. Mom says it looks really deep. Urgent care or emergency department?

Junior woke up this morning with a fever of 102 and says his throat hurts. Strep and flu are going around school. Urgent care or emergency department?

If you answered urgent care to all three scenarios, then you are right! We have all three of these types of patients in the urgent care on almost a daily basis. For moms and dads, knowing when you should take your child to the urgent care versus the emergency department can be pretty confusing. I get questions about this all the time. I have worked in a rural emergency department and two different urgent cares, so let me help you out today and explain what can generally go to an urgent care and what needs to go straight to the ED.  As with anything, sometimes specific situations vary, but hopefully these general rules of thumb will help you decide.

Benefits of an Urgent Care:

Urgent cares are significantly cheaper than the emergency room. Plus, the wait at most urgent cares will be under an hour.  Urgent cares have access to simple tests like mono, RSV, strep and flu. They can also do simple blood work in-house like complete blood count (CBC) and complete metabolic profile (CMP). For any other test, they can send out to a local lab and have the results back in 2 to 3 days. Also, remember that if for some reason they can’t take care of it, they will refer you to your local ED. So when should you head to an urgent care?

  • Fevers
    • For children over 3 months of age, fevers can be evaluated at an urgent care.
  • Ear pain
  • Sore throat
  • Lacerations
    • Most lacerations can be handled at your local urgent care. Even if it looks really deep, they can probably take care of it.
  • Broken bones, muscle pain and joint pain
    • If you need an X-ray for a possible broken bone or ankle sprain, urgent cares can be your best friend. They can normally refer you to an orthopedist if needed and put you in a splint before you go.
  • Allergies
    • If seasonal allergies are driving you crazy, urgent cares can provide some relief.
  • Rashes
  • Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea
    • Most stomach bugs can be handled at an urgent care, and they can give you nausea medication to help with your symptoms. 
  • Sports physicals
  • Testing for sexually transmitted diseases
  • Urinary tract infection
  • Upper respiratory infections

But what if it seems more serious? How do you know when you should go straight to the emergency department?

Benefits of the Emergency Department:

Emergency departments have everything they need to save your life. They see trauma cases, heart attacks, abdominal pains, etc. If you can think of it, they can treat it. They have a lab on-site that can get back a variety of blood work right away. Plus, they also have access to a CT machine and ultrasound to evaluate different parts of the body. So when should you go straight to the ED?

  • Chest pain
    • If you are having chest pain, please don’t delay on this. With an EKG and blood work, you can be evaluated for a heart attack very quickly.
  • Abdominal pain
    • If you are having sharp or intense abdominal pain, that will need to be seen in an emergency department. Most likely you will need some type of imaging (like a CT scan or ultrasound) to see what’s going on.
  • Dehydration
    • If your child has any of the following symptoms, they might be dehydrated and will need to be seen in the emergency department to receive fluids: no urination for a long period of time, dry tongue, unable to produce tears, not eating or drinking. These same symptoms go for mom and dad. 
  • Loss of limb
    • If your laceration is so bad a finger or toe is missing or if you are unable to move the digit.
  • Head injury
    • If you have a head injury where you passed out or vomited right after you hit your head. 
  • Loss of consciousness
    • If your child passed out for any reason. 
  • Serious burns
    • If the burn is over a large area of the body or if it is white or has lots of blisters. 
  • Ingestion of a foreign body or a harmful solution or medication
    • If your child got a hold of any medicine or swallowed something they shouldn’t have.
  • High fevers
    • High fever (think 103 and above) that won’t go down with Tylenol or ibuprofen or fevers in really young infants or the elderly.

I hope this clears up some confusion on when you can go to the urgent care versus the ED! Let me know if you have any questions, and I will try to help!

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3 Responses to When to Choose the Urgent Care vs. Emergency Department

  1. Meredith Redmon
    Meredith Redmon June 24, 2017 at 7:04 am #

    Love this! I am a nurse married to an ER physician and this is soooo important to get this information and distinction out there!

  2. Jenna June 25, 2017 at 3:39 pm #

    Great post!! Bookmarking this!

  3. Samantha Johnston June 25, 2017 at 4:57 pm #

    This is a great article Amanda! Thanks for breaking down all the categories, too!

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