Urgent care vs. emergency care: When to use each one

By understanding the difference between the two, you can choose the right place for the right care.

It’s a scenario many parents have experienced.

A child comes home from playing a sport with a sprained ankle. Do you go to urgent care or to the emergency room?

There are big differences between these options, including the conditions treated at each place and the average cost of a visit. Understanding these differences is important to getting the care you need when you need it.

What to know about urgent care

Urgent care centers emerged in the 1990s as a response to the almost three-quarters of Americans who said they were unable to see their primary care doctors at night or on the weekends. Today, there are about 9,300 urgent care centers in the United States. Many of them are open seven days a week with extended hours.

Urgent care centers offer added convenience, flexibility, and generally much lower costs than emergency rooms. Also, most of them take insurance and have shorter wait times.

These often walk-in clinics serve patients with illnesses or injuries that are not life-threatening who can’t see their doctor immediately. You can also call and make an appointment to avoid longer wait times. Doctors, nurses, and physician assistants at these clinics treat medical conditions including, but not limited to:

  • Sore throats
  • Earaches
  • Cough
  • Fevers without rash
  • Ongoing diarrhea
  • Painful urination
  • Vomiting
  • Sprains or shallow cuts

It's a good idea to find your local urgent care center and check its hours so you are prepared when you need care.

Emergency care and how it differs

Unlike urgent care centers, emergency rooms treat patients suffering from serious, life-threatening conditions such as trauma, stroke, or heart attack.

Other conditions include:

  • Severe chest or abdominal pain
  • Wheezing or shortness of breath
  • Some types of infections
  • Major wounds
  • Paralysis
  • Intestinal bleeding
  • High fevers or rash, especially among children
  • Vaginal bleeding with pregnancy
  • Repeated vomiting
  • Poisoning
  • Dehydration
  • Severe head or eye injuries
  • Allergic reactions
  • Unconsciousness

Most emergency rooms are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They have equipment that urgent care centers may not have, such as:

  • Ultrasound machines
  • Machines that administer fluids and medications
  • Emergency breathing tubes
  • Cardiac monitors
  • Orthopedic equipment, such as splints and cast cutters

Specialists can be available to emergency room patients for specific medical conditions, as well as analysts to report on tests performed.

The average cost of an emergency room visit is $1,233, about $1,000 more than you would pay at an urgent care center.

It’s important to know the difference between urgent and emergency care so you can respond accordingly. If you're not sure if your symptoms or those of a family member are a true emergency, then go to the emergency room. Whether you visit an urgent care center or an emergency room, you want to make sure you are putting the care of yourself and your family first.


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