What Are the Differences Between Urgent Care and an ER?

Reviewed on 11/3/2021

Urgent care or walk-in clinics are meant to be used when your regular doctor is not available and you can't wait for an appointment. Urgent care is not for emergency care. A hospital's emergency room (ER) is the place to go for medical emergencies, including life-threatening situations (heart attack, stroke, trauma from motor vehicle accidents).
Urgent care or walk-in clinics are meant to be used when your regular doctor is not available and you can’t wait for an appointment. Urgent care is not for emergency care. A hospital’s emergency room (ER) is the place to go for medical emergencies, including life-threatening situations (heart attack, stroke, trauma from motor vehicle accidents).

It is important to know the difference between urgent care and a hospital’s emergency room, or ER, when you are sick or injured. 

There are times when symptoms seem more severe than what a regular doctor’s office can treat, or you become ill or injured when the doctor’s office is closed. 

  • Urgent care is not emergency care. Urgent care or walk-in clinics are meant to be used when your regular doctor is not available and you can’t wait for an appointment. If the illness or injury is something you normally would see your primary care doctor for but they are not available, then an urgent care clinic is usually the appropriate place to go. While urgent care offices tend to have expanded hours, most are not available 24/7. 
  • A hospital’s emergency room (ER) is the place to go for medical emergencies that require the specialized staff and equipment to treat complex or critical needs, including life-threatening situations ranging from heart attack and stroke to traumatic injuries that result from motor vehicle accidents. Emergency departments are open every day, around-the-clock.

When Should I Go to Urgent Care?

Urgent care centers are where to go if you need to be treated right away, but do not have a true medical emergency. 

In general, it is best to try to get an appointment with your primary care physician when possible, rather than going to an urgent care clinic. Your doctor knows your medical history, what medical conditions you have, and treatments you’ve used. Urgent care should not be a substitute for your primary care physician, but they can be helpful when care is needed and your primary care doctor is not available.

If you can’t get in to see your doctor, you might consider an urgent care clinic if you have:

When Should I Go to an ER?

True medical emergencies are those that require fast or advanced treatments (such as surgery) only available in a hospital setting.

Symptoms that should be evaluated in an emergency room (ER) include:

  • Possible signs of a heart attack
  • Possible signs of a stroke
    • Numbness or weakness in the face, arm, or leg, usually only on one side of the body
    • Confusion, slurred speech, trouble speaking or understanding speech
    • Difficulty seeing in one or both eyes
    • Difficulty walking, dizziness, loss of balance, or lack of coordination
    • Severe headache with no known cause
  • Fainting
  • Changes in mental state
  • Serious burns
  • Head or eye injury
  • Concussion
  • Broken bones and dislocated joints
  • Fever with a rash
  • Seizures
  • Severe cuts that may require stitches
  • Facial lacerations
  • Severe cold or flu symptoms
  • Vaginal bleeding with pregnancy

Call 911 and get to a hospital’s emergency department (do not drive yourself), especially if you have severe chest pain, signs of a stroke, severe bleeding, lightheadedness, or if your vision is affected.

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Reviewed on 11/3/2021
References
Image Source: iStock Images

https://www.scripps.org/news_items/4231-should-you-go-to-the-emergency-room-or-urgent-care

https://www.cdc.gov/stroke/signs_symptoms.htm