Should You Go to an Urgent Care or the ER?

When someone in the family gets hurt, of course you want them to get medical help immediately. But unless it’s a life-threatening emergency, an urgent care center – not the ER  – may be the best place to seek treatment.

These walk-in centers, which are usually open seven days a week, have many of the same services the hospital provides, including X-ray and other imaging techniques, lab testing, exam rooms and procedure rooms for treating cuts and broken bones.

In addition, an urgent care can cost up to half of the bill for the same care delivered at an ER, and patients often are seen more quickly.

Urgent care centers are well-suited for treating minor burns and injuries, animal bites, sprains and strains, coughs, colds, sore throats, minor allergic reactions, ear infections, fever and flu symptoms, mild asthma, rashes and other skin irritations.

Visiting one of these centers when the situation calls for it also leaves emergency medical professionals free to handle more serious medical conditions.

When To Go to an ER

The emergency room is the place to go when you have a life-threatening condition, or are experiencing severe symptoms such as chest pain or a drooping face, says emergency room specialist David Cheng, MD.

“Any symptom that is extreme in nature or is not relieved with over-the-counter medications, such as severe vomiting or headache, suggests a trip to the ER over urgent care,” Dr. Cheng says. He recommends heading for the nearest ER when you feel symptoms such as:

  • Very high or very low vital signs, such as blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate and temperature (slight abnormalities can be evaluated in urgent care)
  • Altered mental state
  • Seizures
  • Stroke symptoms, including the sudden onset of numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body; confusion, trouble speaking or understanding; trouble seeing or blurred vision in one or both eyes; or trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
  • Vision loss
  • Nose bleeds that don’t stop
  • Severe swelling of the mouth, the inability to swallow liquids or high-pitched breathing sounds
  • Signs of heart attack or irregular heartbeat rhythm, such as chest pain or fainting
  • Shortness of breath with minimal exertion or wheezing
  • A large, distended or rigid belly
  • Severe limb fracture or joint dislocation
  • Blistering or extensive rash
  • Bleeding during pregnancy or labor
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Major trauma
  • Overdoses
  • Complications from recent surgery or procedures
  • Any problem requiring a medical or surgical specialist

David Cheng, MD, is Associate Director of Emergency Medicine at UH Cleveland Medical Center. You can Request an Appointment with a UH doctor online.

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